Interview conducted by Ryan Monahan
Dr. Tackach, a Professor of English Literature, has taught at RWU since 1979, totaling 33 years.
During the semester, Dr. James Tackach finds no time to read any novels besides those taught in his courses. For example, his American Realism class is reading William Faulkner’s tragic tale of a southern plantation family’s spiral into ruin, The Sound and the Fury. Dr. Tackach also currently instructs thesis students in 1950s American literature, and they have just finished reading Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, about a black family living in poverty in Chicago. Dr. Tackach currently teaches another book set in 1930’s Chicago, Native Son. Written by Richard Wright, Native Son tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, a black man living with his mother, sister, and younger brother in the slums. Under pressure by racial labels and intense discrimination, he inadvertently murders a white woman. and, to hide his crime, incinerates her body, instigating a wild manhunt through the streets of Chicago. Talking about Native Son caused Dr. Tackach to recall teaching an English course in a prison in which he was allowed to teach one novel among the short stories. One semester, he picked Native Son, and he still wonders why he picked that one, for, as he says, “one of the reasons we read fiction is to take us somewhere else we can’t go.” Why would a book about murder, a manhunt, and an eventual death sentence be enjoyable for people incarcerated in prison?
With Native Son on his mind, Dr. Tackach recalls reading Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen. Jennifer Jensen Wallach’s biography tells the reader about Richard Wright, who was born in in a sharecropper’s cabin in extreme poverty in 1908 and wound up as one of the major social commentators of his age. Another of Dr. Tackach’s historical and literary passions is Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the emancipation of slaves. Books about Lincoln, he says, come out about one per month; one of his recent favorites is Todd Brewster’s Lincoln’s Gamble, which chronicles Lincoln’s path towards the Emancipation Proclamation and the beginning years of the war. And, of course, Dr. Tackach occupies himself in the summer with at least one baseball book; last summer, he read Mariano Rivera’s autobiography, The Closer, about his rise from poverty in Panama to be the longest relief pitcher in the history of the New York Yankees.
Dr. Tackach’s planned baseball read for the summer is Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry, about the longest game in baseball history between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings. As the title suggests, the famous 1981 game lasted 33 innings and lasted until about 4 AM before officials elected to return the next day to finish. Dr. Tackach is interested in reading this particular book because McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, where the 33-inning game took place, may close in a year or two. Also on Dr. Tackach’s bookshelf is Yasmina Khadra’s novel The Attack, about the Israeli surgeon Amin Jaafari, a dedicated community activist who advocates peace and is stationed at a hospital near Tel-Aviv. One fateful day, while attending to the victims of a suicide bombing, he learns that his beloved wife was the bomber, revealing her evident double life. The novel raises the disturbing question of how well anybody really knows their loved ones, and Dr. Jaafari has to find some way to retain his positive memories of his wife while recognizing her double life.
As an English professor, Dr. Tackach has a hard time narrowing down all of his favorite books to label just one as an “essential read.” However, he finally came up with two: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Dr. Tackach appreciates Mark Twain’s classic 1884 novel about Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi on a raft because “that raft is a lot like our country,” with diverse people who need to work together to create a unified, strong community. Dr. Tackach first read Catch-22 in high school, and has loved it ever since for the startling contradictions in the American political and militaristic systems that Heller reveals. He finds the first three quarters of the book riotously funny, but abruptly turns dark when the reader finally learns Snowden’s elusive secret, hinted at throughout the novel.