Bookmark This is a feature that highlights new books by College of Arts & Sciences faculty and alumni, published the first week of each month. This month’s featured book: Prague: Belonging in the Modern City (Harvard University Press) by Chad Bryant.
Q: Can you give us a brief synopsis of your book?
A: My book is a history of Prague, which today is the capital of the Czech Republic. It is also an extended meditation on what it means to belong — and why the search for a sense of belonging is a defining aspect of the modern experience. The book is organized around the lives of five lesser-known individuals who had been marginalized by the dominant nationalisms of their time. Their lives allow me to trace the emergence of various practices of belonging, such as joining clubs or strolling in public parks, which provided these marginalized characters with a sense of community and place. It’s a book that is meant to stoke empathy and imagination. It demands that we all do better to create spaces and opportunities that allow people to enjoy a sense of belonging.
Q: How does this fit in with your research interests and passions?
A: I’ve been fascinated with the Czech Republic ever since I taught English there in the early 1990s. The lands of today’s Czech Republic also provide a fascinating window into the emergence of modern nationalism, which has been the subject of much of my research to date. I’m also a passionate reader of novels of all types who believes that good history writing is also good, nonfiction storytelling. I love learning about cities, so I wrote the book with that kind of reader in mind.
Q: What was the original idea that made you think: “There’s a book here?”
A: The main idea for the book found me while reading some scholarly articles on migrant communities and belonging in the United Kingdom. I first came to these articles while alone in a German university town for a week. I was feeling a little out of my element. A vague inspiration became words on the page during a semester at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities (IAH) here on campus. The IAH and my department then supported a manuscript workshop, where colleagues here and beyond convinced me that I was on to something important and intriguing.
Q: What surprised you when researching/writing this book?
A: When sharing drafts with colleague and friends, one piece of advice was constant: include more about the main characters. This really surprised me at first, but then I realized that my characters’ stories are inherently compelling and revealing. By toggling between the larger context of the city and these characters’ effort to create lives for themselves in the city, we learn a lot about notions of race, class and gender. We all crave a sense of belonging. Thus, I think that readers can often see a part of themselves in each of the characters. Students, my colleagues tell me, especially enjoy the last chapter, which focuses on Duong Nguyen-Jirásková, a Czech-Vietnamese blogger who, in 2008, wrote about being a first-year college student in Prague.
Q: Where’s your go-to writing spot, and how do you deal with writer’s block?
A: Before and after the pandemic isolation, my go-to writing spot has been a cozy carrel on the top floor of Davis Library. The window there allows for lots of sunlight and a panoramic view of south campus and beyond. When I feel stuck, I usually go for a short walk to clear my head, often to the Meantime Café in the Campus Y. Sometimes I play fast tempo music. The best remedy, though, is to keep writing, anything. I often realize later that there is a pearl among the muck. A hard and unforgiving deadline often helps, as does remembering that writing should be fun. I’ve benefitted immensely from being part of a writing group composed of former IAH fellows.
Chad Bryant is an associate professor of history and an adjunct professor in the curriculum in global studies. The author or co-editor of four books, Bryant specializes in the history of Central and Eastern Europe. Prague: Belonging and the Modern City has received positive reviews in The Economist, The Times Literary Supplement, and Library Journal. The Telegraph of India called Prague “a remarkable book [that] illuminates our ways of inhabiting modern cities in times past and present.” A Korean translation is forthcoming.
Read an excerpt from the book at Literary Hub.
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