The Stanford Freshman Summer Reading List - 2017
Stanford University assigned three books to their incoming freshman class. Wanting to be as well read as these eighteen and nineteen year olds I decided to read them as well. I read them for two reasons. First, I thought I might learn something. Second, I wanted to see what someone, or some committee at Stanford felt was important for their incoming freshmen to know. So here are my thoughts regarding these three books, all of which were superb in their own way.
The first one I read was Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones. This was a National Book Award Winner in 2011. It has been described as "the first great book about Katrina" ("The Boston Globe"). I found it more of a crystal sharp, eyes-wide-open view of poverty in modern America. You can read as many books about poverty which you can find and none will make you feel the experience as well as Salvage the Bones. The story is set in coastal Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005. It is told through the eyes of an unforgettable 14 year-old African-American girl. She lives with her three brothers (two older and one much younger) and her father among chickens, fighting dogs, broken down cars and trucks and a dilapidated house. What sets this novel apart is the quality of the writing. There isn't one false word or phrase. Each paragraph packs an emotional punch. The author's doesn't just tell us about poverty in rural Mississippi, she shows it to us through her vivid descriptions. This ability enables the setting to almost become its own character. The land and location certainly set the stage for the lives these people lead:
"The few dirt-scratched yards and the thin-siding houses and trailers of Bois Sauvage seem a sorry match to the woods, like pitting a puppy against a full grown dog. Here, there are swimming holes that are fat puddles and some the size of swimming pools fed by skinny clear creeks, but the earth makes the holes black, and the trees make them as filthy with leaves as a dog is with fleas. There are clusters of magnolias that are so tall and green and glossy, they are impossible to climb, and the air around them always smells like peaches. There are oaks so big and old that their arms grow out black and thick as trunks, which rest on the ground. There are ponds that are filled with slime and tall yellow grasses, and at night, frogs turn them teeming, singing a burping chorus. There are clearings where deer feed, startle white, and kick away. There are turtles plowing through pine straw, mud, trying to avoid the pot."
The author deftly counterposes daily life for this way below the poverty line family and the father's sense of urgency regarding the impending hurricane. The final chapters tell of Katrina's arrival and are riveting.
The Sixth Extinction is a work of non-fiction written by Elizabeth Kolbert, a journalist who currently is a staff writer for "The New Yorker." She is not a scientist by training but very adroitly makes her case that we are living in an era of mass extinction. This would be the sixth such event in earth history. She illustrates her points by personal research including, for example, time spent in Central America examining the disappearance of thousands of species of frogs. I expected this to be a diatribe regarding climate change but refreshingly, it is not. She does have chapters on our current climate condition, but she does so without standing on a soap box. The chapter on acidification of the oceans (CO2 absorption from the atmosphere) and its effects on coral reefs and the ecosystem which relies on them was clearly written. The other chapter which in my opinion was extremely well done was the one on invasive species and how this has changed environments and native species all over the world. This process has been accelerated in our lifetime by globalization. She notes that the most invasive species ever has been homo sapiens:
"Before humans emerged on the scene, being large and slow to reproduce was a highly successful strategy, and out-sized creatures dominated the planet. Then, in what amounts to a geologic instant, this strategy became a loser's game. And so it remains today, which is why elephants and bears and big cats are in so much trouble... Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it's not clear that he ever really did."
Kolbert not only explains what is going on in our environment today but draws parallels to the five other eras in history when major species extinctions have also occurred. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2015.
Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing made the biggest impression on me. This epic story relates a multi-generational slave saga, starting in Ghana in the late 1700s. The main characters are two half-sisters, one of whom marries a British officer and into a life of privilege. The other is sold as a captive by a warring tribe and shipped to America. Chapters follow descendants through major events in history, including the slave experience in Mississippi, the American Civil War and into modern times. These stories are not told in direct chronological order, but interconnect and the ending chapters are back in Ghana. The characters here are exceptionally well developed and captivating. I was reading this novel at the time of the events in Charlottesville in August. Homegoing gave me insight into how reminders of the pre-Civil War South could be enormously hurtful to descendants of slaves. The slave experience is woven in the DNA of African Americans and this book helped me appreciate that fact. I am aware that unless you are Native American, we all have an immigrant heritage. My great grandparents immigrated from Ireland during the potato famine in the 1880s. My great grandfather worked as a blacksmith in Richmond. I am also well aware that many ethnic groups faced the obstacle of prejudice in subsequent generations. I don't think any of these equates with the slave experience and this book enormously helped me understand that. It doesn't answer the question of what to do with Confederate statues, but at least it makes the issue make sense to me.
So, all three of these books were excellent and presented the Stanford freshmen and me with lots to think about. I would imagine that whomever assigned these books generally wanted their freshman to have an awareness of the larger world. The two novels certainly give insight into poverty and the heritage of slavery. As Stephen Covey has written: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." These books give the reader incredible insights and would seemingly help develop empathy. The Sixth Extinction gives a broad view of environmental processes and concerns without a political agenda. Again, this would seemingly serve the purpose of helping a young person become aware of issues outside of the college campus. I enjoyed reading all three of these books and yes, they made me think and rethink some of my opinions. I recommend all three very highly.