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Assigned Reading: Joshua Calhoun

Associate professor of English Joshua Calhoun holds history in his hands — and in his ears.

A man in black glasses and a blue and red flannel reads a book. He is set against a background of treetops.

Joshua Calhoun almost became a priest, but his deep connections to English, Greek, Hebrew and other languages ignited a love affair with old books, and he followed a different calling. Calhoun has spent a lifetime taking deep dives into ancient archives, studying the myriad ways humans have recorded their stories. Calhoun’s History of Media course focuses on the impact of the environment on recorded history: it’s a story of scarcity and abundance. “If you happen to live somewhere where you can get your hands on papyrus at a certain time in history, your story may be preserved,” says Calhoun. “If you don’t, your story may not be preserved.”

Calhoun hosts a podcast called Holding History, a series of fast-paced, bookish conversations about the fascinating and sometimes puzzling ways we record, share, and preserve cultural knowledge. “Last season was all about what makes a particular collection special, whether it’s a sports archive [or] a spoken-word archive on YouTube,” says Calhoun. “This season, we were really thinking about people who go into the archives and find the stories that they want to tell.”

Can you share an example of one of these stories?
According to Calhoun, New York Times bestselling author and Madison resident Jennifer Chiaverini’s archival research allows her to tell stories about women whose exploits are rarely shared. Chiaverini’s book, Resistance Women, is based on the courageous story of Mildred Fish Harnack ’25, MA’26, who became a member of the German resistance against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. “In her [upcoming] book, Canary Girls, none of the three protagonists, not one of them, is a real person you can find in a census, but they’re a composite of real people,” Calhoun says.

What is a book you think everyone should read?
“I teach a Shakespeare lecture and maybe what I’m supposed to say is, ‘You should read Shakespeare,’ “ says Calhoun. He suggests reading Shakespeare sonnets for the poetic experience. “My family and I, at the end of the day, we do a thing called ‘poem of the day,’ ” he says. “We always read a poem before bedtime.” His must-read Shakespeare play is an easy choice: “I love Henry IV, Part 1. It’s the closest thing you’ll get in Shakespeare to a sports movie. It’s got that kind of Rocky IV vibe going in it.”

 Between studying the history of books, teaching about one of their most famous authors, and consuming literature in your free time, how you do you get all this reading done?
 “I do most of my spare reading with my ears rather than my eyes,” Calhoun says. “I read so much for work that it’s hard to just sit down and enjoy reading for pleasure. It’s not just hard in terms of time, but it’s hard physically —  on the eyes, on the spine, being in that position for a lot.” Does Calhoun feel like he’s cheating by listening rather than reading? He used to. “Over time, I just don’t feel the need to make that distinction.”

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