Gundolf Graml, Assistant Professor of German and Director of German Studies, could woo anyone into the field of German Studies. He is known for teaching engaging courses on film and literature. Intriguing course themes include: German detective novels; history, culture and literature of Afro-Germans; and images of the non-human from the 19th to the 21st century. As the department chair, his top two reading picks for the holidays are highlighted in this week’s edition of The Profile. His responses to our reading habits questionnaire, however, provide greater insight into his recommendations.
Do you enjoy reading? How would you describe yourself as a reader?
I very much enjoy reading. It’s one of the great privileges of being a college professor. In addition to reading the books I need to read for research and teaching, I always try to read books that, at least on the surface, have nothing to do with my work. Very often, the different types of texts begin to “talk” to each other in my hand, and I develop ideas that I would not have come across otherwise.
What kind of books do you read for pleasure/entertainment?
Books on cultural history are currently high on the list, both in German and in English.
Have you read anything recently that you would recommend? Who do you think would like it?
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild — A hybrid of history and very informed and serious journalism, this book tells the story of World War I from a British perspective. What I found fascinating, was the way in which Hochschild combined the history of women’s emancipation in the UK with the British establishment’s conduct of the war. He shows how, for the longest time, the British government thought that the “suffragettes,” British women fighting for the universal right to vote, were a greater threat then the German armies. Since I have read about World War I mostly from the perspective of German historiography, I very much appreciated Hochschild’s descriptions of the brutal conditions in the trenches, which were practically the same for any soldier, regardless of national affiliation, and his attempt to depict the outdated mindset of generals on all sides, who thought it to be a sign of greatest gallantry when their infantry soldiers were walking upright into relentless machine gun fire. Not a pleasant read for the break, perhaps, but an informative and educational one.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson — Of the same genre as Hochschild’s book, Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts describes the experiences of the American ambassador and his family in Berlin during the time the National Socialists took power in 1933. What in hindsight is often looked at as a story of absolute evil versus absolute good, appears way more complicated in this book. Larson details how the American ambassador’s attempts to bring the increasing persecution of German Jews to the attention of the US State Department were largely ignored due to the State Departments own antisemitic stance. Any reader interested in German history of that time will find lots of new angles on historical events.
Do you have any memorable stories about reading that you can share? For instance, was there a book that changed the way you read or did you struggle with reading as a child.
I loved reading from the very beginning. As a child, I thought that one has to read really thick books to be considered a good reader, so I snatched my parents’ edition of the Germanic legends (the Nibelungensong) from their bookshelves and devoured it. I didn’t really understand what it was about, there were a lot of gods killing each other, and dragonslaying heroes. But I made it through the book and was very proud of myself. When I told my elementary teacher, she ordered my parents in for a conference, because she deemed the book to be too violent for a seven-year old.
Where do you get your books from? Bookstore, public library, Agnes Scott Library, download to an eReader, etc.
I try to purchase at independent bookstores. Growing up in Austria, I’ve spent many hours hanging out in bookstores browsing and reading. But I’m as guilty as anyone else for ordering from Amazon or through my iPad Kindle App. As much as I enjoy the portability of electronic texts, I can’t imagine a world with electronic books only. There is this unique experience of walking up to my bookshelves, knowing that somewhere in the upper-left shelves was this book that inspired some great ideas last year, and I would like to pick it up again. That spatial sensation does not exist on the iPad. How and if that will influence the reading habits of younger generations I don’t know, but I know that it is definitely part of my reading life.
Additional thoughts? Comments on how your reading habits connect to your classes or work with students?
I love to experiment with different technologies in the classroom, I teach film, and always try to address different senses when teaching my students. Underlying all of this, however, is the belief that the prolonged and sustained engagement with a longer text, a book, is essential for developing critical thinking. I try to encourage students to turn off electronic devices when they read and just focus on the text.