In his oh-so-ironic How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, French Prof. Pierre Bayard has made an international bestseller out of something that a new study shows Americans don't need instruction in: not reading. At all ages, we're reading less often and less well, according to the National Endowment for the Arts' "To Read or Not to Read," and the consequences sting.
More than income, social class, or education, says NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, the more you read, the greater likelihood that you will do well in school, be successful in business, and become involved in your community. The bottom line, he says: "Reading allows us to achieve more of our personal potential than almost any other activity."
Neuroscience further backs up those contentions, says Tufts University child development Prof. Maryanne Wolfe. "Reading not only creates its own circuitry within the brain; that circuitry gives us the capacity to go beyond the text to new thoughts of our own," says Wolfe, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. "My worry is that our children's and our societal immersion into the ever more immediate, digital presentation format for text will short-circuit" part of that ability.
The antidote: Read on. These acclaimed books of 2007 will teach you how to...
Talk about politics by talking about history. In American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, historian Joseph Ellis recounts six critical episodes between the cusp of the Revolutionary War in 1775 and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. By illuminating the arguments, compromises, and competing ideas of that time, Ellis provides contemporary insight into why these same issues perplex us today, in the form of partisan bickering among the government branches.
Talk about journeys you wouldn't dare take. Combine armchair travel with time travel, add a splash of history and a large dose of adventure, and you'll have a notion of Shadow of the Silk Road by British author Colin Thubron. Starting in Xian, China (in the midst of the 2002 SARS virus epidemic), and ending in the Turkish port once known as Antioch—the intrepid Thubron chronicles a contemporary trip, some 7,000 miles long, on the antique Silk Road trade route leading from Asia to the Mediterranean. The result: a sweeping yet unsettling portrait of lands amid political, social, and cultural upheaval.
Talk about the Bible, whatever your beliefs. Ancient commentators interpreted the Bible through the lens of tradition and faith; contemporary biblical scholars, versed in the science of archaeology, construe different meanings and intent. Where does that leave the modern reader? In How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, former Harvard Prof. James Kugel explains the arguments from both sides and in so doing brings us back to the Bible itself.
Talk about war and peace, as well as War and Peace. Ten years of teaching future soldiers at West Point taught English Prof. Elizabeth Samet how necessary books are for helping these young men and women think about their future, she writes in Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. One favorite that comes up for discussion: Tolstoy's War and Peace—which was also favored this year by two new translations.
Talk about loss and being lost. In A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah tells the harrowing tale of how civil war turned his idyllic village childhood in Sierra Leone into a nightmare life as a marauding child soldier. He gives witness to horror—and provides proof that rehabilitation is also possible. Another extraordinary memoir, Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying, records the toll Haiti's civil war took on the author's family, both in their native land and in their country of refuge, America.