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The Books That Shaped Them

By Whitney Harder

(Oct. 6, 2015) — With "Banned Books Week" celebrated last week and "Teen Read Week" coming up Oct.18-24, exploring the world through literature seems to always be in season. For professors at the University of Kentucky, books have impacted their lives and careers in surprising ways.

Read below for the third and final piece in a series of professors reflecting on the books that shaped them. 

Ashley Seifert

Assistant Professor of Biology 

For me, the most influential books have been all about timing. As a young college graduate, I came upon Benjamin Hoff’s "The Te of Piglet." Hoff’s condemnation of man’s disharmony with the natural world resonated deeply with me. But it was his elegant illumination of Taoist philosophy communicated through A.A. Milne’s Piglet that suggested to me spirituality could save the world. His little novel reminds me to sit calmly every so often and take a big, deep breath. After years spent deliberately avoiding Ayn Rand, I picked up a copy of "The Fountainhead" during graduate school.  While her protagonist, Howard Roark, empowered my personal belief that we shape our own destiny, her writing also cemented my thinking that there must be space for consensus in society. Finally, Hunter S. Thompson’s "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is the perfect reminder of how surreal the world can seem. His genius for mixing political opinion and personal insanity was honest, if not colored, to its core.


Jeff Rice

Chair of the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies

"The Gutenberg Galaxy," Marshall McLuhan. I was a sophomore at the University of Florida when I bought the paperback version of this book for a quarter. My only knowledge of McLuhan at the time was his cameo appearance in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," a movie I had probably seen 50 times by then. I took this book with me when I dropped out of college and traveled abroad for a while, always trying to understand it and its approach to media. I'm not sure why I stuck with the book since most of it was above my head at the time, and I had no clue what it was about. Its style, evident to me even then, was far different than any other academic text I had encountered; the book is a collage of ideas and sayings mixed with research and examples. When I eventually went to graduate school many, many years later, I became a follower of McLuhan's ideas regarding print culture, literacy, and media. I became a follower of McLuhan to the point that today he is one of the three major influences on my career. Almost everything I write is shaped by what I understand from McLuhan's work. But, as McLuhan says in "Annie Hall" to the obnoxious media professor in line at the movies: "You know nothing of my work."

"Naked Lunch," William Burroughs. A lot of our inspiration from books probably comes from late high school or college when we are more impressionistic. Burroughs leaves an impression on certain people, those who are fascinated with the bizarre or out of place. Burroughs was a writer who tried to figure out his place in a world he didn't feel comfortable in. This is another book I discovered while a freshman in college, still trying to figure out my place in the world as well. I knew of the Beats from high school and admired Jack Kerouac (like every other 17 year old) for being a romantic figure. Burroughs, though, was different. He wasn't really romantic in the same way (he killed his wife; was a drug addict), and his method of writing (the cut up) was so far out and bizarre that this "story" of American culture, drugs, racism, being gay, media, and so much more is not really a story at all but a series of odd and confusing impressions pasted over one another. It's also another book that I would call a media book, a book that doesn't interpret media so much as it demonstrates it. Burroughs, like McLuhan, was influenced by collage. And collage, as I and others have written, is central to media production and contemporary understandings of how to produce ideas. We live in the era (new media) defined by practices such as collage. Burroughs, in the late '50s and '60s, understood this point and altered popular notions of narrative. I write today in a way that borrows heavily from this type of thinking; I juxtapose and paste and cut and mix ideas that may not normally go together.


Suzanne Segerstrom

Associate Professor of Psychology

I read a lot of Nancy Drew mysteries when I was a kid. I think reading mysteries fueled my love of puzzles and mysteries (which informs both my current reading preferences and my career as a scientist), and Nancy Drew was a great example of a woman leading the charge and getting things done — even her sidekicks were women.


Michael Trask

Guy M. Davenport Professor in English

I spend my whole life striving to be as unsentimental about books as possible, but of course this is a losing effort. When I think about the foundational books in my life, I think of those texts that have shaped me on the forward path to adult reading, or more exactly to an adult who reads for a living (a very lucky person indeed). The books I come back to over and over are two short, even minor novels by Henry James which I read as an undergraduate: "Washington Square" (1880) and "The Spoils of Poynton" (1896). These are perfect novels. They feature richly developed social worlds, hilariously witty writing, and female protagonists who at first glance are all fragility and submission and who by story’s end emerge as formidably independent. I have a weakness for tender but tough heroines; and that penchant begins with Henry James, on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation. I have moved further and further away from James as an object of study, but not as an object of affection.

With regard to nonfiction writing, the most important books include Jessica Mitford’s "The American Way of Death," a brilliant exposé of the funeral industry, published in 1963 and still unsurpassed as a model of muckraking; and Barbara Ehrenreich’s "Fear of Falling" (1990), which manages to be as insightful about the American status hierarchy as any work of scholarship while also having the advantage of beautifully lucid and accessible prose. I read this my senior year in college and have looked to it as a pattern for my own writing ever since. 


Mark Prendergast

Professor of Psychology

I read "Ishmael" by Dan Quinn years ago, but it sticks with me today. This book really impacted me by demonstrating that extraordinary and impactful knowledge can be found in the most unexpected places, if one is able to appreciate the most simple aspects of our surroundings. This has impacted my scientific research in a very real way. The book has helped me appreciate that, many times, the answer to a scientific question may come from an unexpected and quite simple perspective. The book really reinforces the Law of Parsimony (Occam’s Razor) and this very much applies to science.

It tells the story of a man without a clear direction in his life, who answers an advertisement in a local paper that reads, "Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." Surprisingly, the teacher turns out to be something very unexpected. Over the course of many months, the teacher and pupil discuss the many, potential trappings of societal complexity, technology and the pursuit of financial gain. In the end, the pupil finds direction and contentment, with the teacher’s help, in the simplicity of day to day existence.