Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Greg Robinson

Greg Robinson, a native of New York City, is associate professor of history at l'Université du Québec à Montréal and author of By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans and A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
While I like reading many kinds of books, fiction and nonfiction, I have no real system that governs my choices. The only important determinant of my reading is that I tend to study more attentively any book that seems directly relevant to my research or teaching, and take notes as I read. Conversely, I try to find other books to read for pleasure, to avoid too much of a “busman’s holiday.” I usually read two books at a time. One is a hardcover or large paperback that I keep at home, and particularly for unwinding before I go to sleep. I just finished reading (partly in French and partly in English) Claude Manceron’s 5-book series The French Revolution. He paints a really broad canvas, centering on the earlier life, before 1789, of all sorts of characters who will reappear in the revolution. He seems very fair and considered in his judgments. I particularly appreciate that he gives some depth to his portrait, positive and negative, of Marie Antoinette. I get irritated by the latter-day mythologizing and even hero-worship (à la Kirsten Dunst) of this not only frivolous but deeply reactionary and at least arguably traitorous woman.

The other book I generally read is a “light” (in weight, not necessarily content) paperback that I take with me and read on the subway or when waiting. Since there is not time to read more than a little in one sitting, it can sometimes be challenging. I recently read Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution that way. It took me several months. Hobsbawm, for all his unapologetic Marxist orientation, presents a complex and coherent narrative of the ways that the dual revolution—the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in England—shaped the history or Europe, and more distantly the world. He has a lovely eye for little statistics or details that illuminate his thesis, and a rather droll wit.

The new paperback is David Lodge’s novel Thinks… The novel deals with the interaction between a cognitive scientist, kind of neo-Darwinian fascinated by computers and the question of consciousness, and a novelist who has been invited to take a temporary chair at the scientist’s university, shortly after losing her husband to a sudden stroke. I am wary of people saying that I like Lodge’s novels because they are about professors. Actually, my favorite one is Paradise News, where there are none. However, he really gets under the skin of his characters and shows me how they think and feel. More, he makes me think about ideas and about human relationships. He also is madly funny. Like in his earlier The British Museum is Falling Down, part of the fun is some pastiches and parodies of the style of famous writers that he sticks in under the guise of presenting students’ writing class assignments.
Read more about A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America at the publisher's website, and visit Greg Robinson's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue