Thursday, February 9, 2012

Jeffrey Abt

Jeffrey Abt is associate professor in the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History at Wayne State University. He is the author of A Museum on the Verge: A Socioeconomic History of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1885–2000.

His new book is American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute.

Recently I asked Abt what he was reading. His reply:
My day-to-day reading usually consists of books and articles by scholars for whom, it often seems, writing is like truck building. Their vehicles are plain and sturdy, and they reliably if ponderously deliver the goods. After spending many hours with these kinds of writings, I feel the need to inoculate myself against being affected by that approach. I’ve done so by returning to old literary favorites that, although less efficient conveyances, are nonetheless skillfully crafted and often very beautiful. The most recently read among these are works by Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, and E. B. White.

Readers often know Capote through works that were made into major films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s or In Cold Blood. I much prefer his earlier writings including The Grass Harp and the novel I just reread, Other Voices, Other Rooms. I particularly admire the rhythmic quality of that work and especially the tense, sometimes pungent nature of Capote’s descriptions. Eudora Welty also compressed a world of observations into taut phrases. But hers are offered in a polite and lyrical manner that belies her penetrating if reserved sensibility. It has been a long time since I read some of her best-known stories, such as "Death of a Travelling Salesman." The work I just reread is her One Writer’s Beginnings which epitomizes her particular qualities. E. B. White, who polished the short-form magazine piece into a high art form at The New Yorker, deserves our undying gratitude for his edition of The Elements of Style. There are several collections of his writings to be enjoyed and one into which I’ve been dipping for his lessons on brevity, self-deprecating humor, and well-crafted phasing is Quo Vadimus? Although I read his work for its literary qualities, I find that much of it—written over three quarters of a century ago—remains amazingly current. Indeed, where are we going?
Learn more about American Egyptologist at the University of Chicago Press website and Jeffrey Abt's website.

My Book, The Movie: American Egyptologist.

The Page 99 Test: American Egyptologist.

--Marshal Zeringue