From Kundera in Texas to Czech History in New York City

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Bradley Abrams is an associate professor of history at Columbia University in New York City, where he specialises in the history of the Czech lands. He received his bachelors degree from the University of Texas and his masters and doctoral degrees from Stanford University. It was at Stanford University that he studied the history of East Europe, and here he describes how a book by Milan Kundera in a Texas bookstore sparked his initial interest in Czech history.

I went to school at the University of Texas, and I was in an interdisciplinary honours programme in which I primarily studied philosophy and literature. My father used to send me the New York Times Book Review, because he would get it in the mail and then he would read it and he would send it on down to me. One day I opened it up and there was a book club advertisement that had those little pictures of books, and I saw "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." I had no idea what that sort of title meant, but it was sort of catchy for me. So I went to the bookstore to see whether they had it, and sure enough they did. And I opened it up and there was Nietzsche on the first pages, and since I was studying philosophy - and I was studying nineteenth century German philosophy particularly - I thought "Wow, this is great, this is right up my alley!" But it was twenty dollars, and I wasn't going to part with twenty bucks for a book that I really didn't know was any good or not. And I had never heard of this - what is his name again, Milan Kundera? The whole thing is sort of embarrassing now because now I can't stand Kundera. But anyway I ended up buying "Laughable Loves" instead because it was in paperback and it was only $5.95. And it's sort of embarrassing, but I actually liked some of the stories in that, and so then I went on and I read more Kundera and I started reading other Czech literature, I read Vaculik and I read Havel, I read all these people and I became very interested. I also got interested in Polish literature and Polish history. And I thought, well, you know, philosophy... My dad was concerned that I wouldn't be able to get a job when I was done, and he was probably right. And most American philosophy departments at that time were doing analytic philosophy, which I was not interested in. So I decided perhaps I'll go for a PhD in history, because I am more interested in ideas and how they work in history than in philosophy as such. So with my newly found two years worth of interest in East European matters, I applied to graduate programmes in Eastern and Western European history, saying that I specifically wanted to work on both, because I am sort of a Central Europeanist.