Selection Committee Favorites
When picking a Common Reading book, we consider how the book addresses PLU’s commitments to diversity, justice, sustainability, and global education. We also think about how a book could be used in WRIT 101 and other courses across the university.
We have received very many excellent suggestions for Common Reading. The following titles are just some of the Selection Committee’s favorites from this year and year’s past.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao addresses societal expectations and the intersectionalities between race, culture, and gender. Displacement is a central theme to the novel and fitting in, specifically in college, becomes a central narrative arc. More so than anything though, the book does not seeks to vilify others, instead, showing characters otherwise unrespected by society, in a way that leads to understanding sympathy. It’s the book I wish was given to me for common reading.
There, There, Tommy Orange
There There is the first novel by Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange. Published in 2018, it opens with an essay by Orange as a prologue, and then proceeds to follow a large cast of Native Americans living in the area of Oakland, CA as they struggle with a wide array of challenges ranging from depression and alcoholism, to unemployment, fetal alcohol syndrome, and the challenges of living with an ethnic identity of being “ambiguously nonwhite.” All coalesce at a community pow wow and its attempted robbery. The book explores the themes of Native peoples living in urban spaces, and issues of ambivalence and complexity related to Natives’ struggles with identity and authenticity.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance
This book outlines current conflicts within the United States well and is relatable. The text does not connect to the outside world nor does it make many (large) value statements. It doesn’t look at immigrants or outside of ourselves (in fact it intentionally does not) but rather into, to see something that is ignored within our country.
This book is a good choice for first-year students because it analyzes the struggle of America’s lower income white working class. This is a group that has undergone much struggle over the last forty years and by reading this book, it will give first year students a start to their outlooks on diversity and justice.
The memoir of J.D. Vance is easy to read and understand but has many implications by the events that take place in the book. As a first year student myself I feel as though this book is much easier to understand than the previous book and I believe it was hard for many first-year students to grasp the ideas in We Need New Names. When compared to Hillbilly Elegy, I feel as though the ideas of We Need New Names were more abstract for first-year students and Hillbilly Elegy is much easier for students to visualize in terms of diversity.
Overall, the book educates students on the ideas of diversity and justice especially in today’s current political climate. The lower income white working class is an important group to understand when it comes to learning about diversity. The book describes how they have been dealing with many problems over the last several decades and by reading about these problems, I feel as though first year students can get an initial idea of justice and what their education means in terms of how students can use their education to better the lives of people around them.
Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Safiya Noble
Noble looks at how “old” stereotypes about people of color still persist in new media. Noble research examines the ways search engines misrepresent a variety of people, concepts, types of information and knowledge. This book is Noble’s wake up call to get people talking about the roles that technology plays in shaping their lives.
The Book of Unknown Americans, Christina Henríquez
I read this for a literature class on the U.S Mexico border that I took in my first year. While it does discuss borders, both literal and figurative, it also discusses maturing and aging, exploration of love and sexuality, and a Latino immigrant’s journey of finding place within the United States. It covers a wide range of topics and is still a good length to read over a summer. I loved this book and it has a lot to offer for the incoming first year class!
Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. This book opens dialogue related to social injustice, our criminal system, and offers some glimpses into hate, discrimination, forgiveness, and redemption.
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's, John Elder Robison
This book is about what it has been like for the author to live with Asperger’s. His “odd” behaviors have caused him to get the label of ‘social deviant’ and has kept him from making the connections to other people that he so longed for. It wasn’t until he was 40 years old, that Robison was diagnosed with autism, but that diagnosis changed how he viewed himself and the world. It is a well written book that utilizes dark humor and the personalization of the author to tell the story of being an outsider who looks past his disability, and creates a great life for himself.
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, Jesmyn Ward
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo
Behind the Beautiful Forevers brings complexity to the issue of poverty by demanding the reader to see people living in a particular slum in India as individuals with differing hopes, dreams, and life situations. It takes away the “othering” of the poor and brings up questions of not only class but also race, sex, religion, ability, and power. This book shows the intersections of identity and the difficult decision that many are forced to make in order to obtain
This book is enjoyable to read, has won many awards, and can provide for rich and interesting discussion that will benefit incoming first year students. It aligns more with PLUs mission statement than any book I’ve ever read and provided a great framework for me when I read this the summer before starting at PLU
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, Rod Dreher
This book was introduced to me during my FYEP, and it changed the trajectory of my life. The author writes a narrative that takes place in Louisiana. I firmly believe that much of the culture at PLU represents limited tolerance of diversity. By that I mean that beliefs are tolerated so long as they align with the widely shared liberal beliefs of most students. This does not bother me because it goes against my own beliefs, but rather because I have watched many of my conservative classmates get berated and belittled because of their political standing. This story would bring a much-needed fresh perspective to campus and provoke interesting dialogue. The story also beautifully shares a journey of finding faith and vocation as the author longs to leave his childhood small town but struggles to find community in the big cities. It asks the reader to question if ambition is more or less important than community.
The Underground Railroad: A Novel, Colson Whitehead
One of the best historical fictions I’ve read, Colson Whitehead provides an intimate and personal account of the challenges enslaved people faced as they journeyed from plantations in the southern U.S. to “freedom” in the North. The writing is engaging and visceral, providing an up close view of the cruelty of the institution of slavery and how different communities in both the North and South perpetuated racist policies and practices throughout the U.S. at that time. The book focuses on Cora, a female slave who escapes her plantation, only to find that the road to freedom is littered with comparable violence, fear, and racism. By reading this book, students would deepen their understanding of both the institution of slavery and the unbelievable risks and dangers enslaved people encountered as they attempted to find freedom.
In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom, Yeonmi Park
I read this book last summer and it made me appreciate my life on an entirely new level. This memoir raises awareness to the political climate in North Korea and what a person must go through in order to escape. It is filled with sadness, hope, love and bravery.
Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
I nominated this book as it addresses the issue of racism in such a way that it forces the reader to not only feel her emotions but to recognize oppression as being a group experience. The book also addresses issues of beauty and gender as well as highlighting differences between the black and white upper and lower classes. The book speaks of diversity and social justice while sustainability is not as emphasised in the novel it is present in small doses.
I have been reading this book with my Phil 125 class with professor Greg Johnson. The reason I would have to suggest this book is because it does a great job showing the difference between subjective and objective racism. Many people understand what objective racism is, but few people know what subjective is. I feel like this would be a great way for students to learn the power behind words and the impact that they can have on people.
I’ve read this book twice during my undergraduate studies. The first time left me deeply unsettled–not only does this book raises questions about diversity (daily microaggressions a PoC has to suffer through, when the aggressor has no clue about their harm), but also relating to issues justice (the oppression of systemic and social issues), and sustainability (okay, this might be a stretch–but Citizen definitely discusses about the human condition and how other humans treat other humans, like the hanging tree.). For me, the reasons why Citizen left me unsettled and wondering endlessly was because it shaped my vocational goals. Humans shouldn’t treat other humans this way–at all. The ideas and content that I took from Citizen left a deep, everlasting impression on how I thought of others.
The second time I read this book, I picked up more details about writing style, clarification about the conversations the artwork had with the text. I believe that art itself has been lost on society–slowly, but surely. No one has taken the time nor effort to appreciate it, engage with it. Citizen is not only illuminating and engaging with the mind, but with the eyes as well. The lost appreciation of art is something that should be ingrained into young ones, before it’s gone forever.
Also–Citizen is part memoir. The authenticity makes the work even more immersive. The genre of creative nonfiction should be celebrated.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
This was actually a book that I read in my writing 101 class freshman year. It opened up the most discussion in class and was a topic that led to a lot of good questions about ethics, race, human rights, women’s rights and more. I feel that this book touches on all parts of PLU’s diversity, justice and sustainability pledge.
Despite that this has been turned into an Oprah HBO movie, this text represents an outstanding intersection of race, class, gender, and health. It provides an excellent example of the evolving state of scientific and health knowledge, passion of discovery and ensuing commercialization, evolving and emerging nature of biomedical ethics. This is all wrapped around the context of personal discovery by the author and a complex family story.
What is the What, Dave Eggers
Really informative and an interesting read. It meets a lot of criteria about our PLU priorities of social justice and care for people and communities throughout the world. I believe that it has been a common read at other universities as well.
Education is also a theme in the book. It is taken from not only that of a first-generation student, but students displaced from their country of origin.
What is the What is a novel based on the life of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, refugees of civil of war from 1983-2005. Nearly 4,000 of the Lost Boys were resettled in cities across the United States.
Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson
This is book one of a trilogy (called “Science in the Capital”) about how a combination of scientists and politicians change attitudes about climate change. It is a thoughtful book about real people- men, women, different cultures, interacting and serving in normal ways that eventually create movement towards solutions in a radically changing world. It is “hard science fiction” meaning very science-based in its plot. Though the full impact is best achieved by reading all three books in the trilogy, this first volume introduces the big ideas and provides hope that ordinary people can find ways to serve big changes and find happiness amidst what otherwise seems like a scary, changing world. For today’s students aware of changing climate, worried about their lives amidst such change, and perhaps wondering if ordinary people can really do anything about such bit issues, this is a compelling and optimistic read, full of science and scientists leading the way amidst the world of politics in Washington D.C. in the near future.
Looking Like the Enemy, Mary Matsuda Gruenewald
I believe that this story about Mary a Japanese American and her family who were gathered up from Vashon Island and trucked off to a desert internment camp during WWII will have some resonance with the way Americans look at the Muslim American community today. Mary lives nearby, has been on KPLU before, and is part of the 75th Aniversary of this event which is happening next Tuesday the 16th of May.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid
The novel is a coming of age story set in an unspecified country in “Rising Asia.” Hamid narrates an unnamed protagonist’s callous development towards a career in business (selling water bottles), describing the shifting place of Asia in the global capitalist economy. The novel is told entirely in the second person voice, and it emulates the language of self-help guides, thus parodically identifying the connection between reading and self-betterment. Most importantly, it’s highly readable.
The novel would contribute to PLU’s mission of global education and would also help students become more aware of genres (self-help, coming of age) and identify the relationship between them.
Educated, Tara Westover
This is a fabulously written memoir about the author’s journey from growing up in a survivalist family in Idaho, who did not let her go to school or did not believe in western medicine, who went to college and eventually earned two doctorate degrees. This book deals with several issues some of our first generation or first in their family to go to college students face including: 1) how do you find success in higher ed when you are not fluent in the language or norms of higher ed, 2) how do you get past the imposter syndrome that comes with feeling like an outsider in college, 3) what happens when you become “educated” and realize that many of the rules, norms, customs, and/or culture you grew up in gets complicated by the education you’re receiving, and 4) what does it mean to be educated?
H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
This is one of the best nature-related books I have ever read, but it is so much more than that. The author interweaves her own memoir with the history of falconry and her experience of trying to train a goshawk after her father’s death left her rudderless. I literally could not put it down. The questions it raises about human and animal nature, coming of age, and finding one’s proper place in the world would all be of interest to readers who are embarking on a new phase of their life. Please note that although the official page count is 320, this is a quite slim book, with short, accessible chapters.
Number of Suggested Titles
30 books were suggested to the Common Reading Committee for the 2020.2021 academic year.
The Common Reading Selection Committee values your input. We begin the process of selecting a Common Reading title in September a year in advance for September of the following year. Your input helps us consider titles that are especially appropriate to PLU’s interest in diversity, justice, sustainability, and global education. Common Reading couldn’t succeed without you!