The chicken says, "Book?" and the frog says, "Read it."
February 9, 2010 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for suggestions for a "common read" book for a large public university. Any ideas?

This thread kind of got at the same thing, but it's a bit out of date at this point.

For those unfamiliar with the term, it's sometimes referred to with titles such as "One Book, One College" or "Read It, Share It." Basically, everyone (undergrads, profs, community members, staff) is encouraged to read and discuss the same book over the course of a year or so. It usually includes one or more visits by the author or related speakers, along with a bunch of related activities (art exhibits, concerts, community service, local outreach, etc.). These books tend to be either representative of some hot-button issues or have some sweeping implications.

Previously, we did Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food while our city (several years back) did Danzy Senna's Caucasia and Ann Patchett's Bel Canto.

Possible themes this book might address:
--Race relations

The book could be fiction or nonfiction, and it doesn't have to be new, but the author (or someone very closely identified with the book or its subject) should probably still be alive and able to engage in some activities with us. For reference, Michael Pollan's live speech (free admission) drew 8,000 people.

If we pick your book, I will totally send you something cool. Thanks!
posted by Madamina to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:18 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
posted by missmary6 at 12:20 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've recently been (very slowly) reading Jared Diamond's Collapse. Even if particulars are in disagreement, I think it's a great book for mass reading because it highlights the difficult choices that must be made during tough economic times. It shows that, given the choice between starvation and overthrowing the social status quo, humans are quite capable of choosing either. It raises questions of how we relate to our environments and what should we do about the very real problems of resource depletion and pollution that are slowly gathering steam...

On the downside, it does _look_ like quite the downer by glancing at the cover. But there are certainly stories of societies coming to terms with the issues that threatened destruction and overcoming them. It sets the stage for long-term thinking about how we should change our society to make it more viable.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:20 PM on February 9, 2010

The book could be fiction or nonfiction, and it doesn't have to be new, but the author (or someone very closely identified with the book or its subject) should probably still be alive and able to engage in some activities with us.

Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (nonfiction, from 2000). Bill Clinton loved it. Wright is alive and an entertaining speaker. He's a prominent evolutionary psychologist and journalist who applies ev psych to grand themes. (He popularized the general theory in The Moral Animal, which might be another good book to do although I'm sure the scientific cites from 1994 are very dated.) His recent book is The Evolution of God, but I don't know if you want something on religion.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:22 PM on February 9, 2010

My college and alumnae association recently did Einstein's Dreams. It's a little out of the ordinary - but there's a lot of material there to inspire discussion and related activities for a year.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 12:25 PM on February 9, 2010

My college did Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel the year before I arrived (my year had to read Frankenstein). I heard it was well-received. (I do not recommend Frankenstein, though.)
posted by pluckemin at 12:30 PM on February 9, 2010

I've read & think it would be interesting for such: Freakonomics and Blink. Unless these are too likely to have already been read by most?

I've heard good things about: The Lexus and the Olive Tree.
posted by knile at 12:36 PM on February 9, 2010

Response by poster: For reference, here are some I'm suggesting so far:

As mentioned above, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (LOVE this book, and I know people have used it a lot in other similar programs. Plus we have a large Hmong community in this area. But is it perhaps too well-known, since it's been around for a while and used in other common book programs?)

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III (was once an Oprah book; should that disqualify it?)

I haven't read the following, but in prospecting they look interesting. Any thoughts?
--The Help by Katherine Stockett

--Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

--The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
posted by Madamina at 12:39 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: Mountains Beyond Mountains addresses everything you are looking for, plus the situation in Haiti brings in current events. By Tracy Kidder, the subject is Paul Farmer--an amazing leader.
posted by tk at 12:41 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: The Sparrow is one book in particular that I read with a class and has really stuck with me since. It's not a cheery read by any stretch, but it's very far-reaching and really hit me in a vastly different way than anything else I've ever read.
posted by Rallon at 12:43 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Mountains Beyond Mountains is fantastic. And Partners in Health has been getting press lately because of their work in Haiti.
posted by rtha at 12:43 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: I came in to suggest the Book Thief, which I love, and everyone I know who has read it loved, and which sparked great discussion in my book club.

We have also read the Help, which was well received generally, but I think the Book Thief would be better (if you like books on tape, the reader for the Help was great, I thought).
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:47 PM on February 9, 2010

I watched Jill Bolte Taylor's TED presentation about her stroke and thought she was a gifted speaker. Her book about her experience, My Stroke of Insight, is a best-seller.
posted by angiep at 12:50 PM on February 9, 2010

If you're interested, I posted a thread asking a similar question a few months ago.

We went with Novella Carpenter's Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. It's less well-known than a lot of other options, but that works to our benefit - i.e., she's going to spend a couple days on campus during Earth Week, which we'd never have been able to convince Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver to do.
posted by brozek at 12:53 PM on February 9, 2010

Jonah Lehrer's "How We Decide" has something for the scientists, the marketing folks, the psych department and liberal arts students/professors who read "The New Yorker." It is also fascinating, funny and accessible. You could do worse than having students, staff, faculty and community members think about thinking.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:58 PM on February 9, 2010

It might be fun to go kind of meta on them and choose something about academia itself like Russo's Straight Man, Smiley's Moo, Coatzee's Disgrace, or Chabon's Wonder Boys. These are likely to engender lively debate and the experts would be the readers themselves. I'm pretty sure most of those authors are still available for speaking engagements, though Coetzee would have to fly over from South Africa. You might also consider T. Coraghessan Boyle's The Women about Frank Loydd Wright and the catastrophe that occurred at Taliesin, not far from you all up there in the land of cheese.
posted by Toekneesan at 2:04 PM on February 9, 2010

Shake hands with the devil
posted by Gor-ella at 2:04 PM on February 9, 2010

My sister's college read Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and she really enjoyed it. I can also attest to the fact that Adichie is a compelling speaker and a great teacher -- and she was available to do multiple events including seminars, lectures, and speeches.
posted by ourobouros at 2:25 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: My school did The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for our version of this program. I think it went fairly well, although I must admit I haven't yet read my copy :).
posted by MadamM at 2:39 PM on February 9, 2010

Best answer: My college started doing this for the incoming Freshmen. We read West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story which was very interesting and rather timely.
posted by radioamy at 2:50 PM on February 9, 2010

Berkeley did this a few years ago, using Stephen Hawking's A Briefer History of Time (a somewhat more accessible version of Brief History of Time). Hawking came to give a talk at the end of the program. More recently, they've used Omnivore's Dilemma (which would have been my hands-down, 100%-choice for you if you hadn't already done In Defense of Food) and Lincoln at Gettysburg.

One thing these books (arguably) have in common is that they appeal to both literary and scientific sensibilities; they raise issues of broad importance (either culturally or scientifically or historically) and actually analyze those issues in a non-trivial way, as opposed to just having intriguing questions pop up as part of the narrative. I'd look for other books that do that, too -- so, e.g., although I enjoyed reading House of Sand and Fog, I'd argue that it's not as ideal for this sort of thing. (Because -- again imho -- although there are interesting and difficult questions in the book re: the immigrant experience, clash of valid viewpoints, etc. all underlying the story, they are sort of just the background to what is ultimately a classic tragedy. You could read it as "just" a good story, without necessarily giving it a ton of thought, which to me makes it less awesome for this kind of thing.)

Anyway. Maybe What is the What? Or A Problem from Hell (which is probably too long, but maybe you could do excerpts)?

Or, for something very different, maybe Richard Muller's Physics for Future Presidents? It is probably too close to a textbook for your purposes, but it touches on a bunch of topics of current societal interest (energy usage, nuclear weapons, etc) in an order-of-magnitude way.
posted by chalkbored at 2:56 PM on February 9, 2010

I absolutely loved Triangle, by David von Drehle. It has the "hook" of being about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which many people have heard of, but goes well beyond that into labor relations, the experience of immigrants in the US, sexism, and workplace safety. While it's delving into these issues, it's still a page-turner. Good luck picking something; there are many good choices in this thread (imho).
posted by epj at 5:52 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

We also read Oscar Wao in our book club, and it sparked a ton of discussion.

As chalbored talks about science + literary, I think Oscar Wao and the Book Thief work becuase they have historical significance. (The Help might also fall into this category, sort of. I mean, it's hard for me to imagine a time and place where people thought that blacks "carried" different diseases than whites and should use different bathrooms. So my mom, who was born in 1934, lived through some big changes, and it gave me some new respect for the way she approaches some things. It was an interesting read from that kind of generational standpoint) (but not as good of a book, in my opinion, as the Book Thief or Oscar Wao. But a much quicker read.)
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:09 PM on February 9, 2010

Since you're interested in books about race, a few to consider might be:
The Known World
Shades of White

Also, The One Straw Revolution was just reissued.
posted by salvia at 10:28 PM on February 9, 2010

KPBS (San Diego) did Three Cups of Tea in 2008. In 2009 they did Zookeeper's Wife. Both were great inspirational books that didn't try to shove any particular ideology down your throat. I feel that is important if you want a book to be successful on a large scale book club, as you are doing.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 9:10 AM on February 10, 2010

Response by poster: Aaaaand... we went with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Not one of my suggestions (though I considered it), but I think it'll be a good one.

Thanks again for your ideas; at the very least, I'll have a lot of reading to do!
posted by Madamina at 12:07 PM on April 6, 2010

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