U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Company to Keep: A USIH Book Club

André Kertész, Washington Square, 1969

André Kertész, Washington Square, 1969

It pains me to point it out, but the end of summer is drawing near. What could be better than a rewarding way to avoid thinking about your syllabi, your coursework, your onrushing deadlines?

I am hoping you might be interested in leisurely reading a US Intellectual History-relevant novel along with me during August and September. We would select the novel together (I’ve drawn up a shortlist below), then I’ll break it up into reasonably-sized segments and each week I will post some thoughts, questions, and contextualizations to kick off discussion.

We are, of course, spoiled for choice as far as novels that either track the private and public existence of the US “intellectual as a social type” or that deal with some major theme familiar to US intellectual historiography. I am sure that some of us (myself included) have even drifted into history from a prior passionate engagement with literature; certainly I still feel that our historical work can be made richer by picking up a novel every once in a while.

In the list below, I have left off the most familiar names—Bellow, Roth, Pynchon, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, et al.—and stayed away from what Nicholas Dames has called the “theory generation” because, well, who wants to be obvious? Instead, I have tried to make a list that both captures some of the excitement of very contemporary fiction in the US and that includes some underread classics from the broad middle of the 20th century. All, I hope, should be considered novels of ideas, novels, in the words of Mary McCarthy, that have “the ambition to get everything in, to make this book the Book.”

McCarthy is a sort of tutelary spirit here—and I put her most famous novel The Group on the list, though of course any would have done. I’ll collect these posts under the heading “Company to Keep,” after her debut novel.

At any rate, here’s the list: I have linked each book to its Amazon page—not to patronize Amazon but because often Amazon has the most complete information about the book. Please take a look around, and vote in the comments. No need to use your real name if you want to read along anonymously, but please vote once only!

New books:

Recent books:


16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a wonderful idea, and I’m certainly game for it!

    Out of the ones above, I’m only familiar with Americanah. It’s a wonderful book which would stoke plenty of discussion. But, don’t quite mark it as a vote–I’m definitely curious to see how others vote on this list. It looks like a fantastic group of books.

    Above all, I’m looking forward to this because it’s easy to forget how important novels and fiction, in general, are to intellectual history. Plus, it warms my heart as a BA in creative writing holding scholar to see some fiction every now and then.

  2. A really great idea, and I’d love to participate. I’d vote for Morris’ Motor City Burning.

  3. I recommend “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P” by Adelle Waldman. The main characters are all intellectuals of a certain type and the book is funny and painful (in a good way).

  4. Great idea!

    “Mortals” sounds promising. If this becomes a somewhat frequent occurrence, I would be fascinated to do a book club devoted to John Williams’ “Stoner”. I think it does a fantastic job capturing the triumphs and frustrations of academic life and I’d like to see what other university types are similarly struck.

  5. Andy, I’m glad you’ve proposed this.  From this list, I’d vote for The Group, like Andrew, just to be ornery.


    Now, don’t judge…


    A few weeks ago I read The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. After almost dying of boredom a few minutes in to “Eat, Pray, Love,” it’s a wonder I even opened this book.  But open it I did.  I wasn’t expecting much – honestly, I wasn’t even expecting to finish it — so I was pleasantly surprised.  The novel was part bildungsroman, I guess maybe part bodice-ripper, and – here was a twist – part history of ideas.  Or at least it tried to be – and that was pretty interesting.  As novels go, it was reasonably entertaining in a beach-read way, but also promising in a cultural history way, reflecting particular uses of the past and offering a window into what “history” is or can be for mainstream readers of fiction. (And it was maddening for the same reasons.) There were an awful lot of –isms at play in the book, intentionally and otherwise.  In fact, at several points during the reading I actually thought the USIH crew and commentariat could really make hay with the narrative.  But as a practical matter, I just can’t picture all you dudes settling down to wade through a contemporary mass-market historical romance aimed at bourgeois women readers – which is a pity, because selling romance aimed at bourgeois women readers has had a very long run as the novel’s raison d’etre.  Of such things modernity is made.

  6. Thanks, everyone, and keep them coming!

    I’ll put that on the list for next time. Thanks!

    Stoner would be a great choice to read with USIH; the only reason I didn’t put it on the list this time was a selfish one–these are all books I haven’t read yet. But next time, maybe.

    I’ve heard similarly positive reviews of Signature (and similar surprise). Another writer who has also gained a great deal of critical acclaim for a follow-up to a big–but generally condescended to–bestseller is Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club and, now, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Maybe that’s progress–generally, I feel such women writers have been wholly written off for the rest of their careers.
    At any rate, we can definitely keep Signature in mind for the next installment, and I’m very intrigued now!

  7. “The Name of the Rose,” (Eco) and the effects of a male-dominated library system of its days and several centuries after, perhaps?

    Is “The Group” getting plaudits here due to those who wish to explore more deeply the sexual politics/wimmyn’s transgressivity that McCarthy could barely hint at in the early 60s?

  8. It might be fun to do the first of these book club meetings at the annual meeting as an after dinner event. If this sounds intriguing let me know and I’ll try to organize it!

    • I really like this idea, but maybe we could discuss a separate novel at the conference? I know not everyone who has expressed interest will be able to attend, and I’d like to try out a group read on this platform anyway. We’ll see which book is chosen for the blog, and then perhaps those who are attending the conference and interested in this after-dinner plan can figure out what we’d like to read.

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