No matter what book clubs tell us, reading is a private act, private even from the person who wrote the book. Once the novel is out there, the author is beside the point. The reader and the book have their own relationship now, and should be left alone to work things out for themselves – Anne Patchett
If reading is a private act, as Anne Patchett says, then being inspired by books is even more so. When I suggested putting together a list of books that sparked our sociological imaginations to my fellow bloggers, it seemed like a fun exercise. Now that I’m putting fingers to keys myself to make my own list, I’ve realized how revealing this exercise actually is. Writing about my favorite books reminds me of a time when a friend in college who, trying to fix a setting on my computer, ended up going through my iTunes playlists and laughing uncontrollably at the fact that I owned the entire En Vogue Funky Divas album and how many times I’d listened to Les Miserables. Except now, instead of being unwillingly revealed, I’m actually volunteering this revealing information.
- Studs Terkel – Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.
In college, one of my many jobs was to interview students for a research project for one my sociology professors. We conducted
the interviews in his office, and in between interviews I often browsed his overstuffed bookcases. I wasn’t yet interested in work academically, but remember laughing at the frankness of Terkel’s subtitle. I started reading the introduction and was startled back to reality when my next interviewee knocked on the door a half hour later. After thumbing through Terkel’s riveting interviews, I did one of the best interviews I’ve ever done and started to understand that asking people to tell you their stories can be a radical act.
I enjoy this piece mostly for this one sentence, which once read by undergraduate students (and re-read by nostalgic graduate students like me who long to recreate the moment of sociological discovery) shifts one’s perspective to a sociological set of questions about the world: “Paradoxically…the individuality and the social relatedness of a person are not only not antithetical to each other, but the special shaping and differentiation of mental functions that we refer to as ‘individuality’ is only possible for a person who grows up in a group, a society”. I read this piece first as a TA for Prof. Jeff Olick’s Introduction to Sociology and have referenced it no fewer than 25 times since then in conversations with non-sociologists wanting to understand what I do all day.
- Paul Willis – Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs & Viviana Zelizer – Human Values and the Market: The Case of Life Insurance and Death in 19th Century America (AJS)
Ok, I cheated. In my defense, these two pieces belong together in my mind as two exemplars of the kinds of sociological analysis that I admire. Willis’ book uses ethnography and interviews to toggle back and forth between the relations within a group of working-class “lads” and the ways their ideas about school end up reproducing their class positions. Zelizer’s piece takes perhaps the driest and potentially snore-inducing topic of life insurance, and demonstrates the intertwining demographic, economic and cultural shifts that account for its emergence, and a dramatic shift in the ways Americans thought about life and death. These two pieces are an argument for reading widely in graduate school, as stratification, education, or economic sociology are outside of my own sub-fields of specialization, but were exactly where I found the kind of sociology that convinces me.
- Jeffrey Alexander – The Promise of a Cultural Sociology: Technological Discourse and the Sacred and Profane Information Machine, in Munch & Smelser (eds.) Theory of Culture
This essay was the first time I saw a cultural sociologist take technology as their object of study. Alexander makes the point that technology pervades sociological theory, but for all the ink spilled about it, it remains “a cog in the social system” and its symbolic importance has remained unexplored.
Reading this book, it felt like someone had taken Paul Willis’ spirit and poured it into a study about technology. Schull’s interviews with gambling addicts, game designers, and executives of the machine gambling industry illustrate something counter-intuitive about addiction and the modern subjectivity – it’s not all about the technology, it’s about control. And not only the control of vulnerable people by powerful casinos, and machine gaming companies, but the feeling of control that playing these games gives addicts in their otherwise unpredictable and precarious lives.