This week, Professor of Religion and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Mary-Jane Rubenstein sat down with The Argus to chat about her favorite books, philosophy, and her most beloved bookstores.
The Argus: What books do you have to have on your bookshelves? What are your most beloved books?
Mary-Jane Rubenstein: T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Annie Dillard’s Holy The Firm are my “I can’t get around without them” books—my desert island books. They are also not unlike one another. The Eliot is a prosy poem, and the Dillard is poetic prose. I actually think it was a horrible trick of the universe that Dillard left Wesleyan when I got here.
A: What books are you currently reading?
MJR: Right now, I’m reading basically every book on contemporary astrophysics that I can get my hands on. Anything that comes out on new models of the birth of the universe. I’ve been reading anything and everything about dark energy, dark matter, the ongoing efforts to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics. In other news, I’ve been reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. There’s been a lot of hype and counter-hype about the book, and it’s as good a book as everyone says it is or isn’t. I’m also reading Janet Malcom’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. I found it on sale at this bookstore that I adore in New York so I grabbed it and started reading it on the train. It’s a lengthier version of an article that she published in the New Yorker. Her working problem is, “how is that two Jewish lesbians managed to survive World War II in occupied France?” She unearths this at times beautiful and at times deeply morally disturbing set of ways that they manage to survive and even thrive in the 1940s. In the meantime, she paints this stunning picture of Gertrude Stein, who was really a piece of work.
A: What are some books that have influenced your life and your work?
MJR: The book that really got me going vocationally was Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. I read it as a first semester freshman in a Religion class that I accidently got into. I was trying to get into a Theater class, but I got into a Religion one instead. It was a fluke. I remember thinking quite clearly as I was reading “Fear and Trembling” that I wanted to do whatever I needed to do in order to read this book for the rest of my life. That got me throwing myself headlong into a Religion major. I kept going back to the text as an undergraduate, I wrote my masters thesis on Kierkegaard, and he haunted me through my doctorate years. I then taught a seminar about him last year. So that book comes back to me over and over. I’ve read it more times even than Eliot and Dillard. I find new things there constantly—it’s a pretty short book, but it’s also kind of inexhaustible.
A: What are some other books that you love to teach?
MJR: I love teaching the Kierkegaard because people respond to it really well and really differently. It’s not what people are expecting from philosophy or theology. I also love teaching Augustine’s Confessions. I like how human it makes this architect of Western Christianity, the way that he takes us on his journey with him.
A: Where do you find your books? Do you shop online?
MJR: Two bookstores that I recommend actually used to be the same bookstore. There’s Labyrinth Books in New Haven, which always has wonderful display tables, and its former partner bookstore, Book Culture, in New York. Book Culture is a great store for finding new titles in literature, philosophy, art, and political theory. Another bookstore that I adore is Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street in the city. It’s a fantastic organization and you can always find strange, used books there. Like everybody else, I also shop online. I tend to look at the “people who purchased this book” on Amazon because it’s terrifying, but actually quite accurate most of the time.
A: You were a Religion and English double major at Williams College. What was your relationship like with books in college?
MJR: I remember every once in a while I would stay up reading whatever I was reading for the next day and sometimes get so excited about it that I’d find myself sprinting home from the library afterwards. Nabokov’s Pale Fire left me totally overwhelmed—there’s such strange energy coming from the book. Even Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow—that book is so hard that when you get even a small grasp on even one of those beautiful, messed-up scenes, it’s deeply exhilarating. Of course, I wasn’t able to get myself to love these books on my own. I had such great teachers, and they opened the books up for me in ways that I hadn’t known were possible. They made the books come alive. I guess that’s what I hope to do in the classroom. It’s what I aim for, at least—to make these books come alive in some way.
A: Do you speak any other languages? Do you like to read in any other languages?
MJR: I can speak and read in French. French is the language I access best. There are some contemporary philosophers who are usually published in French before English, so I’ll read them when I can. I can read German with a lot of time and a dictionary, but really, the only vocabulary that I have in German is Heidegger’s. I can ask about thrownness and the withdrawal of being, but I can’t order a cup of coffee in German.
A: With the holiday season coming up, what are your favorite books to give as gifts?
MJR: I often give Dillard’s Teaching A Stone To Talk, which is a great book of beautiful essays. One essay, “Seeing” is about the way that ordinary things in the world can suddenly reveal something beyond themselves.
A: What are the next books on your “to read” list?
MJR: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck—it’s a new book of short stories. And Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I’ve never read it and at this point it’s getting embarrassing. I’ve also been meaning to read Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land. Haven’t read that one, either. Don’t tell anyone.