The Books That Shaped Them

By Whitney Harder

(Sept. 3, 2015) — Who said reading only had one season? Sure, fall is approaching and life is getting busy, but an interesting book could be the perfect way to wind down after those jam-packed days, or to inspire you for the week ahead. For professors at the University of Kentucky, books have impacted their lives and careers in surprising ways.

Read below for the second in a series of professors reflecting on the books that shaped them, and you just may find a title or two to add to your own bookshelf. 

Christia Brown

Associate Professor of Psychology

One of the most influential books I ever read was Toni Morrison’s "The Bluest Eye," which I read my first year of college as a class assignment. It forced me, as a white girl from Tennessee, to evaluate and come to terms with my unearned privilege in American society. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it also led me to my field of research, where I examine how racism and discrimination affect children’s development.  


Rusty Barrett

Associate Professor of English and Linguistics

The book that has most shaped my thinking is the Popol Vuh (the Dennis Tedlock translation), a manuscript originally written in K'iche' Maya that lays out the religious beliefs, creation myth, and history of the Maya. For a religious work, the story is quite engaging and readable and the book provides more insights into Maya culture than any other texts. Tedlock's translation tries to capture the poetry of the original text and inspired me to first study Mayan languages. The Popol Vuh is still highly influential among the Maya and I regularly turn back to the book in my research on contemporary Maya poetry and hip hop music. The Popol Vuh is also a really fun book to read, with stories of twins who descend into the Underworld to play ball with severed heads and lots of other fantastic elements that shed insights into the worldviews of both the pre-Columbian and contemporary Maya.

Stephen Voss

Associate Professor of Political Science

My parents started teaching me to read almost as soon as I could hold a book. By the time I was old enough to make decisions for myself, I required no persuasion; I’d become an avid reader. As a young teen, I would save my allowance for bicycle trips to a nearby bookstore that featured an entire shelf of inexpensive paperback classics by Poe, Doyle, Stevenson, Twain.

I had plunged into the world of ideas, and I was swimming relentlessly, not thinking about who or what I was leaving behind on the comfortable shore — until I reached “The Mysterious Stranger,” a short story that Mark Twain’s editor had condensed out of an unfinished longer work. The story terrified me, crystallizing all in one place so many of the doubts and fears floating around in my teenaged mind — about death, good and evil, the meaning of life. Looking back, I think of that story as the start of my rebellious teenage years, a rough period of insomnia, nightmares, and more than one crisis of faith!

A second book symbolizes for me the ending of that transitional period, partly because it seemed to offer satisfying answers to the questions Twain’s story raised. That book, which I encountered as a college undergraduate, was "The Plague" by Albert Camus, and as the name hints, it portrays a city threatened by deadly pestilence. On the surface, Camus offers few answers. Yet he illustrates how we need not despair even in the face of uncontrollable disorder, unstoppable suffering, and occasional insanity (not so far from the human condition). What defines us is not “making a difference” or the reward waiting at the end, but the struggle itself, even when we are doomed to fail.  That consoled me.

Jennifer Rice

Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies

One book that has had the most profound impact on me is James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Agee wrote this book in the '30s as a way to document the poverty among sharecroppers in the south during the Great Depression. The book is strange and wonderful in the way it is written. It's poetic, visceral, and passionate in its writing. In the introduction, Agee tells the reader that if he could, he would hold the reader's ear close to a stereophone and play it so loudly that their ears hurt. Agee's book taught me that good writing is cutting and bold.


Matthew Zook

Professor of Geography

It is fair to say that the most influential books for me have been in the format of novels rather than nonfiction. Storytelling is just a powerful medium. My first “wow” book as a kid was "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by C.S. Lewis, which I discovered in fifth grade. It took the relatively forgettable books I had been reading and made me realize the power of imagination. This fueled my love of the science-fiction and fantasy genre (Tolkien, Le Guin, Clarke, Asimov, Pratchett, the list goes on and on), a (somewhat guilty) habit I maintain today. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time in Oxford, England, and was able to visit the gravesites of both Lewis and Tolkien as well as hang out at their favorite pub, the Eagle and Child.

In high school and college the reading that had big impacts were again novels but based in daily struggles. This includes "Grapes of Wrath" and "Tortilla Flat" by John Steinbeck, "Homage to Catalonia" and "Down and Out in Paris and London" by George Orwell, and "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker.

The final thought is not a book per se but an entry in an old-style children’s encyclopedia called Childcraft. This two-page entry titled the “Answer Machine” outlined a wall mounted information system that “future children” would use to do their homework. I thought it was one of the coolest things ever, except for jetpacks and flying cars, also predicted in the same volume of Childcraft. When the Answer Machine started to become a reality with the Internet and World Wide Web, I decided to devote my academic career to studying it.

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