Jennifer James is an urban cultural anthropologist and former University of Washington professor and Seattle Times columnist for 18 years. She lectures and presents corporate seminars around the world on technological change and adaptive strategies. Her most recent book is “Thinking In The Future Tense”; she’s working on a new book, “Cultural Intelligence.” James lives near Three Tree Point between Seattle and Tacoma with her husband Ron, three dogs and 12 canaries.
Valerie Easton: What books are open on your nightstand right now?
Jennifer James: “Madness, Rack, and Honey,” the collected lectures of Mary Ruefle. Ruefle is a poet who also writes prose and teaches. I had never heard of her until I read a review of this book and was captured by her deep and rich musings on life.
“Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death,” by Irvin Yalom. I have loved his novels, “The Schopenhauer Cure” and “When Nietzsche Wept.” In this book he writes as a psychiatrist and human being about mortality.
“The Waves” by Virginia Woolf. She’s one of my favorite writers because of her exquisite use of language, and how deeply she understands her characters.
Do you read more fiction or non-fiction?
My default position is always to find a good novel.
You were a self-help newspaper columnist for years — what self-help authors do you read and recommend?
I have been called a few things, but I always thought of myself as an anthropologist. A “pop” anthropologist, perhaps, because I wanted to be able to communicate with everyone. We all want understanding, and I was able to offer a different perspective than some. I have not read a “self-help” book since I left the radio waves so I have none to recommend.
You travel extensively — do you have any favorite travel books or authors? Any books that have guided you, inspired your travel?
I always try to read a novel of the country I am travelling in to get a feel of the history or the literature. I search the web for the top three novels in the country the year I am travelling there.
What were your most cherished childhood books?
The Walter Farley books about horses. The Black Stallion series absolutely thrilled me and I went to the library every week. We also got a book every month from a children’s book club and I loved them all. The ones I still remember are Toby Tyler (he ran away to the circus) and Robinson Crusoe. We also had my English grandfather’s set of Dickens and I read every one from about ages 10 to 14.
Have your reading interests and tastes changed through the decades?
Not much, I still love a good story, I have never liked mysteries except Sherlock Holmes. I lean into exquisite use of language and deep insights into life or character. I hate for those books to end. I read a lot of international novels now because I want to understand other parts of the world. As a girl I loved reading about animals, but now it is humans.
Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?
James Baldwin, one of my all time favorite writers, has so many. Carl Jung, likewise. I remember one from Jung: “Understanding does not cure evil, but it is a definite help, inasmuch as one can cope with a comprehensible darkness.”
William Carlos Williams, “All that is needed for a new universe is a new mind.”
Mary Oliver, from the poem “Wild Geese” …”Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” I see the Canadian geese fly in formation past my window on the Sound. At twilight they swoop back and forth deciding where to land.
Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?
I could not get through “Bel Canto” or “Middlesex” or “Infinite Jest.”
Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?
Anything by Jane Austen or James Baldwin.
Favorite poems or poets?
Mary Oliver, Eduardo Galeano, Edna St. Vincent Millay. On rare occasions we read Vachel Linsey after dinner and march around the house.
When and where do you settle down to read?
Everywhere, big chairs and my comfy bed or wherever I have to wait.
Do you get books from the library, on a Kindle, or an iPad? Keep a library queue going?
I buy used books, I trade books to used bookstores, and I always read on paper.
Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?
If I tried to name books that have altered my thinking, some would be “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell, and the work of Charles Darwin and Carl Jung. Also “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” by Thomas Kuhn, and “The Evolution of Consciousness” by Robert Ornstein.
What book do you plan to read next?
“How to Play the Harmonica and Other Life Lessons” by Sam Barry, (Dave’s little brother). The experts recommend learning a new skill to avoid dementia as you get older, so I decided on something smaller than my cello and more portable. I hope to display this new skill at my 70th birthday party this summer.
What Val’s Reading This Week: A long-ago book recommendation by Jennifer James inspired me to write “Book City.” At least 20 years ago, The Seattle Weekly ran a story in which they asked locals, including James, what they were reading over the summer. James called out the Deptford Trilogy by Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. Intrigued, I plunged into “Fifth Business,” “The Manticore,” and “World of Wonders.” These rollicking, mysterious novels have given my family such pleasure; we’ve all read and loved them. Davies’ language is spectacular, his humor wicked, his characters complex. The books are steeped in Jungian psychology, Canadian history and theater lore. In honor of that long ago, formative recommendation, I’m re-reading my favorite of the Deptford novels, “World of Wonders.”