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2020 Liberal Arts Bookmarks

Reviews of a few good reads from people in and around the College of Liberal Arts, featuring a reading list from Dean Matthews!

Reviews by Alix Poth ’18

The Tubman Command
Author: Elizabeth Cobbs

Elizabeth Cobbs, Melbern G. Glasscock Chair in American History and professor in the Department of History, proves in this book that history is needed more now than ever before.

Unfolding history is a never-ending process; there are always new stories to be found, fresh perspectives to be seen, and old narratives to be more fully recovered. Elizabeth Cobbs, Melbern G. Glasscock Chair in American History and professor in the Department of History, once again took hold of this lofty task and told Harriet Tubman’s story like never before in her new novel, The Tubman Command.

Cobbs’ novel, however, contributes to a larger conversation around Tubman instigated by the vote to make her the face of the twenty-dollar bill. The vote is what piqued Cobbs’ interest in the first place.

“When the conversation about Harriet Tubman started, I knew only a little bit about her and was wondering ‘why her?’” Cobbs said. “I wanted to know more, but found that few historians had written on Tubman, and none in novel form.”

These questions led Cobbs to do what any good historian would do: dig deeper. As the idea of a novel formed around Tubman’s remarkable story, Cobbs traveled across America to research and experience the same places and settings in which Tubman walked.

“She had a rocking story — she was a spy, a disabled veteran, a romantic,” Cobbs said. “She had an unmatched career and used every tool available to her to make America more free. I really came to care for her story.”

The Tubman Command follows the life of Tubman and one of her spotlight moments as she leads one of the largest plantation raids in the Civil War. The book paints the scene of a society marked by the Civil War.

Cobbs is no stranger to having one foot in the world of academia and another in the world of mainstream audiences, something she has always set as a goal in her work. Similar to her successful novel on Alexander Hamilton, Cobbs desired to tell Tubman’s story in a way that could speak to both scholarly and general audiences at the same time.

“Both of these audiences need American history,” she said. “It’s similar to what Lin-Manuel Miranda did with his play, Hamilton… it encouraged the study of American history. You have to engage the hearts and minds of people through stories, movies, plays, to help them also care about the history.”

Telling the story of historic figures like Tubman informs audiences that these heroes were everyday people, Cobbs said; having them on an unattainable pedestal doesn’t do any good. Tubman was brave because she acted in the face of her fears. Especially in a period where women’s history is still obscure or pushed to the side, Cobbs said people want to hear about stories like Tubman’s — and now happens to be the right time to share them.

The liberal arts is at the heart of all of these things. Cobbs noted how the future will be marked by machines that continue to get better at programming, but they will never answer the “why.” Why people do the things they do — and what they should do instead — is the fundamental question of the liberal arts.

“We have to understand the past to notice which trends we should continue and amplify, or which trends we need to be careful not to reinforce. But the stories have to be told in order to understand the trends,” Cobbs said. “Celebrating the narratives of national heroes like Tubman shouldn’t belong to a specific political party’s agenda. The story of Harriet Tubman belongs to everyone.”

The Underneath
Author: Kathi Appelt

Cover art from "The Underneath."

Kathi Appelt ‘79 uses her English degree to introduce children to the liberal arts in her children’s books and young adult novels.

Kathi Appelt’s debut children’s novel is lyrical, formidable, and inspiring. The Underneath received numerous awards — John Newbery Honor Book, Association for Library Service to Children Notable Children’s Book, National Book Award Finalist — for its poignant story of love, hate, and staying true to your word.

Appelt’s refreshing and poetic voice paints the story of curious calico kittens living in the bayou who make an unlikely friend, a dog named Ranger chained up to an evil man’s house. Ranger urges the kittens to stay where it’s safe — underneath the porch — to be protected from the house’s owner, who is guaranteed to use the kittens as alligator bait if they’re found. All is well until one of the curious kittens, leaving the safety of the “Underneath,” sets off a remarkable chain of events.

Author of the classic children’s novel Holes, Louis Sachar describes The Underneath as mysterious, magical, and full of suspense, while New York Times bestselling author Allison McGhee coins the book as a classic.

“Rarely do I come across a book that makes me catch my breath, that reminds me why I want to be a writer: to make of life something beautiful, something enduring,” McGhee said. “The Underneath is a book of ancient themes—love and loss and betrayal and redemption-woven together in language both timeless and spellbinding.”

Author: Louis Hyman

Cover art for "Temp"

Louis Hyman won the 20th Annual Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship for his book “Temp.”

The Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research at Texas A&M University awarded the 20th Annual Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship to Louis Hyman, for his book Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, published by Penguin Random House in 2018.

Temp explores the complexities of American business and the stability of the workforce. The premise of the book is that “gig economy” — or temporary gig jobs found among day laborers, office temps, adjunct professors, freelancers, companies like Uber, and more — has upended the “stable work” economy created in postwar America.

“Temp is the history of how American work and American business — and perhaps even the American dream itself — became tempo-rary,” author Louis Hyman writes. “This history traces the rise of the stable work and stable investment that happened after World War II, in that period that historians called the postwar — from 1945 to 1970 — and how it became undone.”

The Susanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship recognizes interdisciplinary scholarly literature that makes an outstanding contribution to the humanities. It was endowed in December 2000 by Melbern G. Glasscock, Texas A&M University Class of ‘59, in honor of his wife, Susanne.

“It’s distinctive,” said Emily Brady, director of the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research. “Few other university humanities centers have book prizes like the one we award here at Texas A&M.”

Dean Matthews’ Reading List

Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America
By CLA former student Dr. Caleb McDaniel
2020 Pulitzer Prize in History Winner

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better Than You Think
By Hans Rosling
2020 Common Grounds Book

The Poet X
By Elizabeth Acevedo
2020 Brazos Valley Reads Book

Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary
By Dr. Louis Hyman
2020 Glasscock Book Prize Winner

The Underneath
By CLA former Student Kathi Appelt
Newbery Honor Medal

The Tubman Command
By CLA faculty Elizabeth Cobbs