Spring semester has just begun (although for many of us springtime weather still feels very far away). Come rain, snow, or sunshine, it’s the perfect time to curl up with a good book. The Edge Effects editorial board has asked professors around the United States to recommend environmentally minded books they are excited to teach this semester. Below are five faculty favorites, any of which would make a great addition to your bookshelf.
Gerry Canavan, Assistant Professor of English, Marquette University
Recommendation: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014)
I warn my students not to read the back cover, which gives away a twist about one-quarter of the way into the book that reframes everything that’s come before. I’ll say the same thing here: don’t read a description, just read the book, which is a transcendent exploration of love and failure both within families and between humans and animals. The more we learn about animals, the faster the strange line that supposedly separates us from them recedes into the distance; Fowler’s book captures that weird interplay between kinship and difference as perfectly as any text on animals I’ve ever read. And I bawl every time I read it.
Eric S. Godoy, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Illinois State University
Recommendation: Steven Vogel’s Thinking like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature (MIT Press, 2015)
American environmentalism’s conception of “nature” is value-laden and hopelessly confused. Vogel reviews and advances the scope of this now-familiar conversation, suggesting ethicists abandon “nature” for “environment.” All biological beings are always already in an ongoing relationship with their environment. With this in mind, the question of what an ethical relationship might look like can get a better grip. Accessible yet sharp, the controversial book argues that shopping malls and automobiles also deserve moral consideration insofar as they are part of the world that humans build, and therefore, for which humans are responsible.
Maria Lepowsky, Professor of Anthropology and Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Recommendation: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)
This experimental, multi-disciplinary, collaborative volume is divided into two sections, Ghosts (Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene) and Monsters (Inhabiting Multispecies Bodies). Decentering the human, the authors take us on narrative journeys through memory traces and future visions, past microbial worlds, salmon farms and multispecies domestication, and haunted geologies and necropolitics of post-volcanic and radioactive landscapes. A central question is “What kinds of human disturbance can life on earth bear?” The book is simultaneously deeply disturbing and hopeful, guiding us, for example, toward perspectives on future megafauna and the potential for a wilder Anthropocene. I look forward to students’ reactions to these narratives as counterpoints to more scientistic writings on the anthropology of climate change.
Nicole Seymour, Assistant Professor of English, California State University at Fullerton
Recommendation: J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (Milkweed Editions, 2017)
Students adore this book, written by an African-American wildlife ecologist and recreational “birder.” It’s accessible yet incredibly rich, allowing for all manner of classroom activities. For example, we use it to talk about genre, discussing the difference between memoir and autobiography and whether the “environmental memoir” constitutes a genre all its own. Lanham’s gorgeous prose also lends itself well to close reading. And, of course, the book starts conversations about the whiteness of outdoor recreation and conservationism. A final bonus: Lanham includes a hilarious anecdote about zoo-goers’ horror over masturbating monkeys; that anecdote provides us with a nice segue into a unit on queer ecology.
Karl Steel, Associate Professor of English, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
Recommendation: An Account of a Savage Girl Caught Wild in the Woods of Champagne (Edinburgh, 1768)
For this introduction to literary theory course, our discussion of posthumanism, race, gender, and postcolonialism will cluster for a time around this translation of Marie-Catherine Homassel Hecquet’s 1755 Histoire d’une jeune fille sauvage trouvée dans les bois à l’âge de dix ans. Written by a woman about a girl, Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc, the Account is distinct in several additional respects from comparable feral child stories: Marie-Angélique, probably a Native American from Wisconsin, was kidnapped as a child, painted black, and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. She eventually ends up stranded in France, where she gradually loses her nonhuman traits—her unusually long thumbs, for example, that enable her to scramble through the trees—as she is trained to eat and otherwise comport herself like a French, Catholic girl. This short, strange book invites readers to explore how critical animal theory and ecocriticism entangle with a host of other critically vital approaches such as histories of colonialism in the Americas and explorations of how bodies become gendered, racialized, and human.
Editorial note: This is the fourth time the editorial board has reached out to environmental scholars to present a list of helpful books for teaching environmental material. Be sure to read our Fall 2016, Spring 2017, and Fall 2017 editions as well!
Featured image: Photograph by Gail M Tang.