John Vaughn is a physician in Student Health Services. In addition to his clinical work, he teaches courses in Narrative Medicine in the Department of English and College of Medicine.
What are your five favorite books and why?
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments and Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace. I think people are too quick to throw around the term “brilliant” when describing writers or other artists nowadays — and ever since his tragic suicide in 2008, that may very well be true about Wallace himself — but I think these two essay collections truly earn the distinction. Wallace writes with such a powerful curiosity and empathy that he makes any and every topic he thinks about fascinating. He writes like we think; while the page-long footnotes and other flashy literary flourishes can be distracting at times, reading his work is like being in the mind of a really smart and funny friend.
The Best American Short Stories Series, Heidi Pitlor (series editor). This book comes out every October, and walking up to the bookstore to pick up a copy is one of my favorite annual traditions at Ohio State. The series editor scours literary journals, magazines and websites to compile a list of hundreds of outstanding short stories published during the previous year. A special guest editor (this year it’s Tom Perrotta) is then asked to choose the best 20 or so to publish. It’s a great way to discover new authors and I’ve found that short stories really are a unique art form; they often create more indelible images than novels can.
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman MacLean. MacLean was an English professor at the University of Chicago and wrote this novella/story collection — his first work of fiction — at the age of 70, which I find very inspiring. It is a very moving story about how the people we love the most are often the ones we are least able to help, written in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read.
Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. This play is an American masterpiece. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and a revival starring Al Pacino is currently playing on Broadway (I saw the Broadway revival with Alan Alda and Liev Schreiber in 2005 and it was fantastic). While technically not a book, Mamet’s script is an amazing work of literature. Not a lot of action occurs on-stage, so he uses the rhythm and pacing of his dialogue to give the narrative an amazing tension and momentum. My brother gave me an autographed copy of the book for being the best man at his wedding and it is one of my prized possessions.
What’s your “guilty pleasure” – a book you love but don’t often talk about because it’s not “serious” literature?
Last Christmas, my wife gave me a subscription to Aubible.com and I have become absolutely hooked on audiobooks. They’re a great way to work in an extra book or two every month because I can “read” them while driving to work or taking a walk around campus at lunch. But I have noticed that the format is better suited to books that are more plot-driven – it’s harder to appreciate well-crafted prose and nuance of character when you’re concentrating on the road – so lately I’ve gotten into the John Corey series of novels by Nelson DeMille, most recently The Lion. I wouldn’t say I’m guilty about listening to these books (c’mon… we’re not talking Fifty Shades of Grey here!), but I have to admit that I tend not to mention them in conversations with the English folks over in Denney Hall.
What “important book” have you not read and why haven’t you read it?
Oh man, I’m embarrassed to say that I have multiple answers to this question: Joyce’s Ulysses, As I Lay Dying (or anything else by Faulkner), Milton’s Paradise Lost, the list goes on. Why haven’t I read them? In terms of Faulkner, I think I was a little shell-shocked after reading The Sound and the Fury in one of my English classes here at Ohio State (I mean, I could appreciate the brilliance, but it was exhausting!) For a long time, I told myself that I had to go back to these “important” books someday, but with some experience and wisdom, I’ve developed the confidence to say that there is as much value in books that I enjoy reading as there is in books that I “should” read. And there have just been too many of the former for me to make it back to the latter, I guess.
What is the last book you bought?
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I’m not necessarily a big fan of the Tudors (real or fictional) or historical fiction in general, but after reading this novel’s prequel, Wolf Hall, and hearing that Bring Up the Bodies had also won the Man Booker Prize, I had to get it. Mantel adds unbelievable depth of character and historical detail to a real-life page turner of a plot to create a great read. She tells the story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, and turns a typically minor — and reviled — player in the historical record into the Tony Soprano of the Middle Ages; a ruthless but strangely romantic man who provides a fascinating look into the empire he runs through intimidation and cunning but that he knows will crumble under him as quickly as any of his victims.
What genre of literature do you prefer to read (history, fiction, biography, etc.)?
Fiction; because as corny as it sounds, when it is done well I think it gets closer to the truth of what it means to be a human being than the vast majority of non-fiction published today.