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Adult Education

December 11, 2010

Maybe it’s because I feel weird going through the Fall season without learning anything, but I realized recently that among my stacks of books I’ve been getting from the library, many were of the educational variety. I’ve been on a nonfiction bender for a while now, but with a few exceptions, I’ve been gravitating towards what my elementary school would call “True Fact” books (ugh) rather than my usual memoirs. If you’re interested in getting edumacated as well as entertained, you should check these out.

Required ReadingGuyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel

Courses: Gender studies, sociology

My group of friends has been passing this book around like it’s the latest Harry Potter. “You haven’t read Guyland yet??? Oh, but you NEED to!” They told me during my last visit. A quote from the Chicago Tribune says, “If you’ve ever had a conversation with a teenage boy and wondered what on Earth was going on behind the blank stare and slightly open mouth, this book will serve you well.” And it is sort of a nice parenting guide in a way, but for this audience and why I assume my friends have been eating this book up, the more appropriate question to pose is, “If you’ve ever dated a guy and wondered what in the Hell that asshole was thinking when he (fill in a common complaint about men here), this book will serve you well.” Unfortunately, what makes this book a bit difficult to get through is that the answers to those eternal questions (What is it with guys and sports? Why didn’t he call? Why do men rape? Why do frats haze?) are nearly always the ones you thought of once and hoped wasn’t actually the truth. (As in, nearly all of Kimmel’s conclusions are some variation of “White men are pissed off that they’re not in charge of the world anymore, so they all kind of secretly hate women in some degree.”) Instead of coming to some understanding with the opposite sex that allows me to be at peace with our differences, reading this tended to just make me more angry and upset thanks to his argument that most men are biologically engineered to be jerks. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating read, as long as you get past Kimmel’s voice that sometimes borders on an old geezer tone. (Oh these kids today and their electronic gadgets and their bling.)

Required Reading: Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury

Courses: History, New York City, law enforcement, sociology

I admit it. I didn’t know the movie was based on a book. And when I found that out, I assumed it was some historical fiction. And when I found out it was actually a book written by a journalist in the twenties, I assumed I wouldn’t want to read it. Then, I was walking around the Lower East Side and got just a taste of its sordid history and knew I needed to know more. Do not let the 1920s copyright date fool you as I did. This is not dry reporting. It reads as easily as a page-turner mystery novel, only it’s much better because it’s all true. To put it eloquently: this shit is juicy. I had no idea how terrible the conditions of the city used to be, or just how incredibly violent things were. Life was a constant bloodbath, if you weren’t dying from the poor living conditions of your cramped tenement or alleyway. Gangs literally ruled the city, often in place of or directed by the day’s politicians. The cast of characters in these pages are delicious, and have the best nicknames ever. (Move over Snooki, Hell Cat Maggie is going to come and beat your ass down.)  The story takes place in the late eighteen-hundreds and early nineteen-hundreds, right when the city is first starting to try and create a law enforcement team. Some of the best scenes describe how naturally a number of rival law and fire-protection agencies were trying to rise to power at the same time, and it was usually their arguments over turf that started some of the bloodiest riots in the book. One of the more interesting things to think about while reading this is to wonder whether or not we’ve really evolved past this. Walking around the city today, I wonder how easily we could fall back to this state, and what’s really stopping us from doing so. If you have any interest in New York whatsoever, this book is an absolute must-read.

Required Reading: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Courses: Biology, pre-med, philosophy

Just hear me out on this one, okay? Yes, this is a book about dead bodies. No, I am not a serial killer. Yes, I am a little morbid. But trust me, even if you’re a perfectly sane person, you’re bound to find this book fascinating. Perhaps it was because it was such new material. I didn’t read a single thing in here that I thought was rehashed from a million other things I’ve read. Everything was new and interesting, and something I never would have learned from any other source. Basically, the author investigates nearly every single outcome of what a human body can go through. She covers the basic biological process of death and decay, as well as options for disposal and philosophical ideas about death and the afterlife. But the bulk of the book explores the many different ways cadavers are used for research in every field imaginable, from doctors using them to practice surgery on, to car makers using them as crash test dummies, to the army using them to test weapons on, to the police using them to figure out the facts of the case. Sure, it can be a difficult book to get through at times, (a piece of advice from someone who’s been there: do NOT read this while waiting for a meal that involves rice to cook. You’ll thank me later.) but I guarantee that it’s worth getting through the icky parts. What makes it shockingly palatable is that Roach somehow manages to make this book funny. Thank god. I don’t know how she did it, but when I wasn’t holding in my vomit, I was laughing out loud. It was one of the most interesting books I have ever read, so put your big girl pants on and risk it. (She also wrote a book about the scientific studying of sex called Bonk, but I stopped reading about halfway through because I found it too boring. I guess that says a whole hell of a lot about me.)

Required Reading: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Courses: Linguistics, literature, history (both U.S and English), psychology

I’ll give it to you straight: this is a book about the history of writing the Oxford English Dictionary. Wait! Don’t stop reading! Look at those juicy words in the title! Madman! Murder! Insanity! Ooh! Aah! Okay, enough with the exclamation points. In order to enjoy this book, you should probably have some interest in the English language. Even with the murder and the madman and what not, the story can admittedly drag a little even for an English dork like me. However, when it’s good it is really good. Assuming that you have never stopped to think about how the dictionary was created before, its history should prove engaging. Dr. W.C Minor, the “madman” of the title, is an incredible character, and the story of his madness is worth the read itself. Winchester’s tone is very readable, and he does his best to make even the dryer parts entertaining. On a related note, I have now read a book about both the dictionary and the encyclopedia. Anyone have any suggestions for a book about the thesaurus I can add to my list?

Required Reading: War Paint: Madame Helena Rubenstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry by Lindy Woodhead

Courses: Fashion history, business, women’s history/feminism, marketing/PR

Fashion has dozens, if not hundreds, of fascinating personalities, but seldom rival the story of Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, the first people who sold the “culture of beauty” to women around the world. The beauty and fashion industry would be absolutely nothing like what it is today if it wasn’t for these two women. In a time when women rarely dared seek out a career, Rubenstein and Arden grew out of poverty, defying nineteenth-century notions of class and gender, to become “two of the twentieth-century’s most powerful business tycoons.” Even if fashion isn’t your forte, their business genius is something to be admired and inspired by. It was these two figures, along with their muti-billion dollar beauty companies, that pioneered modern advertising, public relations and direct marketing. Throw in the ever-luscious backgrounds of the bohemian epicenters of Montparnasse and Greenwhich Village, as well as the sensational story of their biting rivalry, and you have a  page-turning story fit for the tabloids. Mixing the best of highbrow and lowbrow entertainment, War Paint makes a great addition to your library.


Want some extracurricular suggestions? These are some memoirs and biographies without the educational slant I’ve enjoyed recently as well:

American Eve by Paula Uruburu

Everything Is Going to be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour by Rachel Shukert

Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich

How Did You Get This Number? by Sloane Crosley

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