The best books to help us harness the ‘classics’ to address crises -- such as flight from persecution

Robert F. Barsky Author Of Clamouring for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us about People Fleeing from Persecution
By Robert F. Barsky

Who am I?

I have taught a broad array of humanities and social sciences courses over the years, sometimes employing case studies from the realm of law, most notably stories about undocumented migrants, refugees, or homeless people. I’ve also had occasion to teach in law schools, usually in ways that bridge the gap between the legality of forced displacement, and the lived experiences of those who have done it. I won a Rockefeller Foundation grant to write my newest book, Clamouring for Legal Protection, in which I considered the idea that we can learn a lot about refugees and vulnerable migrants with references to people we know well: Ulysses, Dante, Satan, and even Alice in Wonderland.


I wrote...

Clamouring for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us about People Fleeing from Persecution

By Robert F. Barsky,

Book cover of Clamouring for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us about People Fleeing from Persecution

What is my book about?

In this novel approach to law and literature, Robert Barsky delves into the canon of so-called great books, and discovers that many beloved characters therein encounter obstacles similar to those faced by contemporary refugees and undocumented persons. The struggles of Odysseus, Moses, Aeneas, Dante, Satan, Dracula, and Alice in Wonderland, among many others, provide surprising insights into current discussions about those who have left untenable situations in their home countries in search of legal protection. Writing this book, I found that the great ‘classics’ soddenly came back to life, in a new form. Beloved characters, in well-known stories, were suddenly resurrected as narratives about characters we know and love as they struggle to gain recognition or find safety.

The books I picked & why

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Humanity at Sea: Maritime Migration and the Foundations of International Law

By Itamar Mann,

Book cover of Humanity at Sea: Maritime Migration and the Foundations of International Law

Why this book?

This book addresses the well-known issue of refugees who are attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in order to gain refugee status in Europe, but it does so by adding historical detail that helps us to understand the legal issues pertaining to their flight. Mann links these overloaded vessels filled with desperate peoples to the actions of Jewish migrants to Palestine after WWII, Vietnamese 'boatpeople', Haitian refugees seeking to reach Florida, Middle Eastern migrants and refugees bound to Australia, and Syrian refugees currently crossing the Mediterranean, and then legal responses by states and international organizations to these movements. Along the way, he also helps us to understand the value of reading works by twentieth-century thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, and other legal materials to form a rich account of an issue of increasing global concern.

Humanity at Sea: Maritime Migration and the Foundations of International Law

By Itamar Mann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Humanity at Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This interdisciplinary study engages law, history, and political theory in a first attempt to crystallize the lessons the global 'refugee crisis' can teach us about the nature of international law. It connects the dots between the actions of Jewish migrants to Palestine after WWII, Vietnamese 'boatpeople', Haitian refugees seeking to reach Florida, Middle Eastern migrants and refugees bound to Australia, and Syrian refugees currently crossing the Mediterranean, and then legal responses by states and international organizations to these movements. Through its account of maritime migration, the book proposes a theory of human rights modelled around an encounter between individuals in…


Tears of Salt: A Doctor's Story of the Refugee Crisis

By Pietro Bartolo, Lidia Tilotta,

Book cover of Tears of Salt: A Doctor's Story of the Refugee Crisis

Why this book?

This moving narrative describes the life of a doctor working on the Italian island of Lampedusa, who learns firsthand about hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern refugees fleeing civil war and terrorism and hoping to make a new life in Europe. Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who runs the lone medical clinic on the island, took care of these refugees for more than 25 years, before being the subject of a remarkable film, which is both fictional and real, called Fire At Sea. That film, and this book, shed light on the remarkable life and work of Dr. Bartolo and, moreover, tells the stories of refugees, alive and dead, whose worlds collided with a complex geopolitical system that creates hardship, and then seeks ways of helping those affected.

Tears of Salt: A Doctor's Story of the Refugee Crisis

By Pietro Bartolo, Lidia Tilotta,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tears of Salt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Situated more than one hundred miles off Italy's southern coast, the rocky island of Lampedusa has hit world headlines in recent years as the first port of call for hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern refugees fleeing civil war and terrorism and hoping to make a new life in Europe. Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who runs the lone medical clinic on the island, has been caring for many of them-both the living and the dead-for a quarter century. Tears of Salt is Dr. Bartolo's moving account of his life and work set against one of the signal crises of…


Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation

By Roosevelt Montás,

Book cover of Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation

Why this book?

This book assesses the value of liberal education, and the importance of (re) reading the so-called ‘classics,’ rather than resorting to short snippets of articles, YouTube videos, or chapters which make short and pointed arguments about specific issues. The great classics have changed Roosevelt Montás’s life in ways that are to me familiar, since I’ve enjoyed watching the fruits of liberal education as they transformed his life of my own students over the years.

Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation

By Roosevelt Montás,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rescuing Socrates as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Dominican-born academic tells the story of how the Great Books transformed his life-and why they have the power to speak to people of all backgrounds

What is the value of a liberal education? Traditionally characterized by a rigorous engagement with the classics of Western thought and literature, this approach to education is all but extinct in American universities, replaced by flexible distribution requirements and ever-narrower academic specialization. Many academics attack the very idea of a Western canon as chauvinistic, while the general public increasingly doubts the value of the humanities. In Rescuing Socrates, Dominican-born American academic Roosevelt Montas tells…


The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing

By Arnold Weinstein,

Book cover of The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing

Why this book?

Weinstein takes the age-old question – what is literature? – and transforms it into why we (would want to) read literature. For him, literature changes us, allows us to be someone else, and provides us insight into the world we inhabit, and many more worlds we haven’t. He reads a broad array of works, from Sophocles to James Joyce and Toni Morrison, and thinks about such issues as identification, empathy, and sympathy with those we come to ‘know’ through our reading.

The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing

By Arnold Weinstein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lives of Literature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mixing passion and humor, a personal work of literary criticism that demonstrates how the greatest books illuminate our lives

Why do we read literature? For Arnold Weinstein, the answer is clear: literature allows us to become someone else. Literature changes us by giving us intimate access to an astonishing variety of other lives, experiences, and places across the ages. Reflecting on a lifetime of reading, teaching, and writing, The Lives of Literature explores, with passion, humor, and whirring intellect, a professor's life, the thrills and traps of teaching, and, most of all, the power of literature to lead us to…


Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

By William Deresiewicz,

Book cover of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

Why this book?

William Deresiewicz, suggests that students aren’t encouraged to think critically and creatively in college. For him, students need more time for exploration, creativity, and self-discovery, rather than yet another student assignment that panders to the requirements of courses. I have found this tendency as well, and I’ve looked for ways to loosen these restrictions so as to foster independent thinking rather than rule-following.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

By William Deresiewicz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Excellent Sheep as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As a professor at Yale, William Deresiewicz saw something that troubled him deeply. His students, some of the nation's brightest minds, were adrift when it came to the big questions: how to think critically and creatively and how to find a sense of purpose. Now he argues that elite colleges are turning out conformists without a compass.

Excellent Sheep takes a sharp look at the high-pressure conveyor belt that begins with parents and counsellors who demand perfect grades and culminates in the skewed applications Deresiewicz saw first-hand as a member of Yale's admissions committee. As schools shift focus from the…


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