Drexel’s Michael Yudell is an associate professor and director of the new Initiative for Public Health Ethics and History at the School of Public Health where he teaches history of public health and ethics. He recently finished his third book, Race Unmasked: A 20th Century Struggle to Define Human Difference, which focuses on the concept of race in scientific thought in the 20th century, scheduled for publication next year. Yudell is also co-creator of and regular contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer blog The Public’s Health.
An avid reader, Yudell was never a fan of author Stephen King. But Yudell changed his tune when he took on chance on King’s recent 11/22/63, a novel that steps outside King’s traditional horror fantasy and takes an intimate look at American history, in particular the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Why did you choose this book and what is it about?
The book came out last year and was a New York Times bestseller. Some friends loved it, so I picked it right up.
It’s a wonderful story that follows a man back in time with a plan to stop the Kennedy assassination and, with it, the hope to stop some of the other assassinations in the 1960s and maybe even the Vietnam War. What makes it interesting for me as a historian is the amount of research King put into this 800-plus page book. The story really articulates an interesting theory about what history is and what we can know about it and how we can change it.
What is it about this book/topic that you find important or enjoyable?
Putting the fantastic nature of the story aside, it’s really a book with wonderful and interesting characters. I was on vacation and I read 800 pages in just five days—you just fly through it because you’re interested in how he is going to resolve the main character’s dilemmas—he first needs to be sure that Oswald was the assassin, and once he does, he’s concerned over the impact of his own actions on a now uncertain future.
As an historian, I found the book important because it forces the reader to think about what history is—how we can know and interpret it, and what it means to change it. These are things at the core of what many historians think about when engaged in their work.
Did the book live up to your expectations?
It exceeded them.
Is there a passage or a quote you find particularly interesting?
Throughout the book, there is a line that gets repeated that’s really the theme of the book: “history is obdurate.” In other words, history itself is stubborn. This notion of history as obdurate, to me, was really interesting because it’s not only about the way the past pushes back on change, but also about how our interpretation of the past can also resist change.