Books on Books: Craig Fehrman, Anna Kornbluh & Booksellers Off the Clock

March 1st, 2020

From our nation’s highest office to the uncharted territories of political formalism, we trust in books to take us in and out of the bookstore on this episode of Open Stacks, with journalist and historian Craig Fehrman on presidential authorship and literary theorist Anna Kornbluh on the future of social space and the novels on which it stands. Plus, booksellers off the clock, and what’s not to like about Wuthering Heights. Find books that break ground and more reasons to dig into what might be our most meta episode yet.

“Barack Obama first joined the Co-op in 1986,” writes Craig Fehrman in Author In Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote, “and for many years he would duck into 57th Street’s basement location, wearing a leather jacket in the winter and shirtsleeves rolled up in the summer, browsing quietly while the shop echoed with the sounds of the apartment dwellers above." Pictured here, Obama ducks into 57th Street Books for the second time as an author, following his first stop for Dreams from My Father, at which "about thirty people showed up, most of them familiar faces from community organizing and the University." Read more on how Obama's reading shaped his writing in an excerpt from Author In Chief, and listen in as we discuss the books Obama and other Illinois hopefuls read and wrote, and the bookstores they browsed. And don't miss Fehrman's recommended reading from a "Presidential List" below, including The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge; a short book that's been "totally forgotten," says Fehrman, but that tells us "honestly and crisply" what it's like to be a father, son, and president. 

This week, a few of our booksellers spoke on what they like to do when they are not selling books, including Joey's powerlifting, Annie's love for cooking and eating decadent breakfasts, Bryce's passion for the Chicago Fire, Freddie's beautiful pottery skills, and Guillermo's exploring Chicago's many parks, even in the dead of Winter. And, since even when we are off the clock we are immersed in books, our staff recommended some books that touch on these diverse interests. 


At the Front Table, Alena and Colin get recursive, discussing books that chart the forms of their own (and other books') mediation, examining "the shape of the missive," as Alena describes it. From Jordan Alexander Stein's When Novels Were Books, which retells the origin story of the corpus of codices that would later be called "the Novel" in relation to other kinds of codex, to Danielle Aubert's gorgeous-to-hold-and-behold history of The Detroit Printing Co-op, to The Order of Forms by Anna Kornbluh, who we'll hear from in the next segment. (And be sure to listen out for more on When Novels Were Books in the next episode of Open Stacks!)

Associate Professor of English Anna Kornbluh (left) spoke on The Order of Forms, in conversation with Sianne Ngai at the Seminary Co-op on February 3, 2020. Discussing theories of realist novels and literary theorists such as Erich Auerbach and Georg Lukacs, their dialogue can be advertently "abstract," in Kornbluh's words, but touches down to ask such questions as how writing can build worlds, where science fiction falls short, and what separates a state and sonnet, anyway. 

This episode was produced by Elliot Ducree, Veronica Karlin, and Jackson Roach. It features music by Andrei Pohorelsky, Kevin MacLeod, Blue Dot Sessions, and johnny_ripper. Browse below the books we featured on this episode, and explore the Co-op's venerable Front Table no matter where you are by subscribing to our weekly email newsletter and visiting