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President of Harvard

Drew Gilpin Faust: president of Harvard, Civil War scholar

Drew Gilpin Faust admits to being a detective story addict but she also reads other fiction. ROSE LINCOLN/HARVARD/Harvard

With all the fanfare around Drew Gilpin Faust being the first female president of Harvard University, it was easy to forget that she’s also a noted scholar on the Civil War and the American South. The latest of her six books is “This Republic of Suffering,’’ which examines the effects of the war’s enormous death toll. She’ll speak at the Boston Public Library as part of the Lowell Lecture Series on April 10.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

FAUST: I’m going to India this month. I have a large pile of books that I want to read about India. I’m looking forward to reading a book about Delhi called “City of Djinns’’ by William Dalrymple. I just finished a book called “Mumbai Fables’’ by Gyan Prakash that I liked.


BOOKS: Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction?

FAUST: Both. I’m a detective story addict. I’m a complete captive of Scandinavian mysteries, such as the Kurt Wallander series. “The Troubled Man’’ by Henning Mankell is one of my favorites. I like Hakan Nesser’s “The Inspector and Silence’’ too. I like women writers. Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, Ruth Rendell, and Elizabeth George. Michael Connelly just did a new book, “The Drop,’’ which I think is one of his absolute best. I also read fiction more generally, and recently read “State of Wonder’’ by Ann Patchett and enjoyed that. I read biography. I liked John Lithgow’s “Drama.’’ I also read about higher education. I gave all my deans a book called “Why Does College Cost So Much’’ by Robert Archibald and David Feldman.

BOOKS: How do you manage to read as much as you do?

FAUST: I don’t know. It’s a kind of lifeline for me. I really love it. It’s a way of getting outside the reality of the pressures around of me.


BOOKS: While researching your own books, what have you read that you really enjoyed?

FAUST: I was asked to give a lecture last May related to my historical research on war. To prepare, I revisited books. One of the most powerful books I returned to was Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.’’ Another classic about war that has influenced me my whole career, even though it’s about World War I, is “The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell.

BOOKS: What kind of role did reading play in the Civil War?

FAUST: Reading was extraordinarily important to women in the South. What it enabled them to do was to imagine different lives for themselves and led many of them to write because they knew they were living in such historical times. I got quite interested in Augusta Jane Evans Wilson, who wrote “Macaria’’ in 1864, which was a Confederate bestseller. The novel was out of print, so I helped get it reprinted and wrote an introduction for that edition. Now, I’m hopelessly out of date with Civil War books. I was just in a bookstore the other day, and there was a new book about religion and the Civil War I should have read. I’m very aware of my shortcoming.

BOOKS: Was there a book that set you on your course to be a Civil War historian?

FAUST: No, it was more growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

BOOKS: What books influenced you then?

FAUST: Nancy Drew. She was a pretty important person. I also read a lot of books about young women doing strong things, like biographies of Clara Barton and Helen Keller. Also, in my family there were ritual occasions of adults reading to children. For example, my grandmother wanted to develop one-on-one relationships with us by inviting a single child to be read to. I hated it. I wanted to read to myself. I didn’t want anybody between me and the magical world of the book. My brothers have these memories of sitting with my grandmother and drinking hot chocolate as they disappeared into King Arthur. I would have none of it.


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