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A Texas-Sized Reading List 2020

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UT’s Biggest Book Club Continues Tradition Online

The Reading Round-Up is a popular summer book club for new Longhorns and a beloved back-to-school tradition. Faculty members select books for summer reading and lead small group discussions on campus the day before fall classes start. It’s an event that provides a personal entry into the college environment and connects new students with outstanding faculty members and fellow Longhorns.

The 2020 Round-Up, like most things this year, will be a bit different. Instead of small groups in a classroom, Reading Round-Up will for the first time bring people together over video chat.

“Reading Round-Up is my favorite event because it provides an exciting starting point for the new academic year. What can be better than meeting our newest Longhorns on the first day of their UT journey?” asks Brent Iverson, dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies, which hosts the event.

“This year, Reading Round-Up will have an especially important role as we’ll be introducing incoming students to the virtual UT campus and giving them a head start on interacting with faculty and each other in this virtual world.”

Moving online hasn’t stifled participation; over 850 freshmen are registered to participate on Aug. 25.

Though the event isn’t open to the public, the list is a great resource, and we want to share it with everyone looking for their next book. Whether you are interested in fiction, biographies or nonfiction, this list has something for every reader.

Psychology, Self-Help, & Business

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

Join the legions of poets, scientists, politicians, and others who have learned to think at the invitation of James Webb Young's A Technique for Producing Ideas. This brief but powerful book guides you through the process of innovation and learning in a way that makes creativity accessible to anyone willing to work for it. While the author's background is in advertising, his ideas apply in every facet of life and are increasingly relevant in the world's knowledge-based economy. Young's tiny text represents an ideal start to university education with its tactics for viewing life through a new lens and its encouragement to look inside for a more creative version of ourselves.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

Want to learn how to make positive changes in your life? Start your time at UT having learned simple ways to build positive habits and break up with those that aren’t helpful? Check out this book for simple yet powerful advice with practical tips you can implement right away.

Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick by Wendy Wood

Most of what we do is a result of the habits (good or bad) that we have acquired. This book describes psychological research on how habits are learned and how they may be modified. By reading the book, you will learn some psychology, and may gain insights into how you might turn some of your own bad habits into good ones.

Grit: The Power of Perseverance and Passion by Angela Duckworth

University of Texas freshmen come from many backgrounds, but what we all have in common is a desire to succeed. This book reminds us that a fair bit of our success is in our willingness to give things our all.

In my years teaching college students, I’ve learned just how important this concept is both inside the classroom and in life. The stories shared in this book will resonate with you, and they are an ideal way for you to think about your own success from the first day you become a Longhorn for life! If you would like, take the Grit Scale as you read this book.

Make it Stick, The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown

This is a well-written little book on learning. It reports real research not guesses, conjectures, and opinions—as most books of this sort have done in the past. The book is available as a paperback, audiobook, or ebook.

Perfect Pitch: The Art of Selling Ideas by Jon Steel

Steel shares his experience and wisdom in crafting winning ad agency presentations. Steel, an irreverent Brit who has worked in the U.S. for many years, draws insights from a diverse range of persuasive experts including Johnnie Cochran vs. prosecutor Marsha Clark in the O.J. Simpson trial, Bill Clinton, and a London hooker. The applications of Steel’s insights extend to any situation where an audience or individual is the focus of a persuasive pitch. This is a lively, fun, and most revealing read.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

A timely and compelling message for students who are entering their college experience with a narrow definition of who they are, and who they want to be. Range is a fascinating case for the importance of coloring outside the lines, whether you're focusing on athlete development (like I do) or pursuing excellence in virtually any other field.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

This book tells the tales of patients afflicted with different neurological disorders. The stories are deeply human and highlight in bizarre and at times very comical ways the importance of the brain for our ability to interpret the world around us.

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley

For millions of years, humanity has battled hunger, disease, and violence. But only until very recently in our history—the last 200 years—we have been able to successfully deal with these threats. Progress means humans live longer, are better fed, healthier, and less prone to suffer violent deaths than our ancestors. We have access to services, technologies, and machines that make our lives more comfortable and safer than what kings had not too long ago. This, of course, doesn’t meant we do not have important economic and social problems requiring our attention. But things are getting better every day, in spite of people’s pessimism about the future. Why and how? Matt Ridley offers a possible and persuasive answer.

In The Rational Optimist, Ridley puts forward his surprisingly simple answer to how humans progress evolves: ‘we progress when we trade and we only really trade productively when we trust each other.’ Exploring Ridley’s narrative doesn’t only help us in understanding the wonders of the modern world, but provides insights on how we could successfully solve our modern problems.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Is Google making us stupid? When Nicholas Carr posed that question in a celebrated Atlantic essay, he tapped into a well of anxiety about how the Internet is changing us. He also crystallized one of the most important debates of our time: As we enjoy the internet’s bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?

With The Shallows, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, Carr expands his argument into a compelling exploration of the net’s intellectual and cultural consequences.

Biography, Autobiography & Memoir

Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction by David Sheff

This best-selling memoir depicts a family's experience with addiction and covers a substantial portion of the author's son Nic's life and the struggles to live with, help, and understand the person with a substance use disorder. This book was #1 on New York Times best seller list, Entertainment Weekly named it the #1 Best Nonfiction Book the year it was published, Amazon named it "Best Book" in 2008, and it won the Barnes and Noble "Discover Great New Writers Award" for nonfiction as well. 

Beautiful Boy is used as a text in the Young People and Drugs UGS Signature Course. It elegantly weaves the narrative and experience with the best of the evidence-based science about addiction and recovery. The authors have visited our class in the past, so we can share insights beyond the written word. This book is an excellent vehicle to understanding addiction, recovery, and more about yourself in the midst.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

You’ll be mesmerized by the intimate and inspiring memoir of Michelle Obama–the former First Lady of the United Sates who helped create a White House that was the most welcoming and inclusive in history. Mrs. Obama established herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls around the world, encouraging the pursuit of healthier and more active lifestyles. She also raised two down-to-earth daughters, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and used her platform of public service to educate, connect, and inspire us all.

Becoming is a deeply personal story told with honesty and boldness. As you start your journey here on the Forty Acres, this book will inspire you to answer the question: Who are you and what do you want to become?

Educated by Tara Westover

In this compelling memoir, author Tara Westover reflects thoughtfully on her experiences as a child in a survivalist Mormon family. With no formal education until age 17, Tara defeats all odds by gaining admission to Brigham Young University and eventually earning her doctorate from Cambridge University. This book is compelling and thought-provoking, leaving readers to ponder the question: What does it really mean to be educated?

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

Factfulness presents data about the health, economic condition, and safety of the world today and how all those and other features have improved significantly. Most people are misinformed about the world situation, and most people believe that the world is in much worse shape than actual data about the world reveals. If you do not have time to finish the whole book, no worries, just watch some of Rosling's TED talks.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer

This is a true story written by an incredible author who happened to be climbing Mt. Everest when a tragedy occurred. This is a fascinating book which will leave us with many philosophical and ethical issues to consider.

The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia by Emma Copley Eisenberg

While this non-fiction book can be reduced to a genre (true crime) it is really about a 20-something just out of college making a life for herself in a new place while coping with challenges to her mental health. It is as funny as it is grave, and all the while focusing on how to make a life when you are just starting out.

The Third Rainbow Girl offers profound thoughts about what it means to make choices about who you are and how those choices both imbed you in and distinguish you from your community. “Telling a story is often about obligation and sympathy. With whom is your lost cast? To whom are you bound?” She addresses these questions not just at the level of the individual but also as national ones—how do we respond to our histories of violence—especially gender- and race-based violence—in ways that make us who we are?

This is a coming-of-age story that connects the individual to her community while at the same time questioning where and who exactly her community is.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

If you've ever had a teacher that touched your life in a very positive way, this book is for you. Short, very readable, and yet, quite profound in its reflection, Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie describes rediscovery of that mentor and a rekindled relationship that goes beyond the classroom and brings us to lessons on how to live.

History & Social Science

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

In this collection of essays, Lambda Literary Award-winning writer and longtime activist and performance artist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha explores the politics and realities of disability justice, a movement that centers on the lives and leadership of sick and disabled queer, trans, black, and brown people, with knowledge and gifts for all.

Care Work is a mapping of access as radical love, a celebration of the work that sick and disabled queer/people of color are doing to find each other and to build power and community, and a toolkit for everyone who wants to build radically resilient, sustainable communities of liberation where no one is left behind. Powerful and passionate, Care Work is a crucial and necessary call to arms.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

CW: This book contains content that explores issues of plagues, pandemic flu, and death.

Kivrin Engle is a history major studying at Oxford in a future world where time travel machines are controlled by universities and used for research purposes. Kivrin travels back in time to live in a medieval English village for a few weeks…and just about everything goes wrong. She arrives and immediately falls ill. She can't understand the language of 1300's England. Her clothing and appearance aren't right, and the villagers are quite suspicious.

Author Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering, and the indomitable will of the human spirit in this award-winning science fiction novel.

Eligible for Execution: The Story of the Daryl Atkins Case by Thomas G. Walker

On August 16, 1996, 18-year-old Daryl Atkins was involved, along with a co-defendant, in the murder of Eric Nesbitt, a young naval mechanic stationed in Virginia. Found guilty and then sentenced to death in 1998, Atkins’s case was taken up in 2002 by the Supreme Court of the United States. The issue before the justices: given Daryl Atkins’s reported intellectual disability, would his execution constitute cruel and unusual punishment? Their 6–3 vote said yes.

Despite the SCOTUS ruling, Daryl Atkins’s situation was far from being resolved. The determination that Atkins actually had an intellectual disability, under Virginia law, occurred a few years later–a process in which I (Jim Patton) was involved. Eligible for Execution gives readers a front row seat into the twists of the judicial process while addressing how disability, race, and other issues play into society’s evolving view of the death penalty. Personal reflections, as an insider to a part of Atkins judicial process, will be shared.

Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard A. Muller

Energy for Future Presidents is an overview of modern energy issues, including chapters on energy catastrophes (Fukushima, Gulf oil spill), oil and gas (traditional, and also shale gas, fracking and natural gas), alternative energies (solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels), energy storage (batteries, flywheels, supercapacitors), and electric vehicles. The book is written for general audiences, so any future president among us can understand it easily.

Muller has a strong background in energy science, and established the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project to specifically tackle skeptical claims that were made about the IPCC climate-change reports. He made headlines all over the word when the BEST project confirmed that global warming is taking place, and concluded that human activities account for virtually all of the warming.

This book includes an excellent discussion of that research and the conclusions drawn from it. There's never been a better time to dive into energy issues, and it would be hard to find a better book to introduce and explore the complexities and challenges of energy in the modern world.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker

This book makes the argument that on every possible front, from health to education to equality, and even the environment, things have never been better, a lot better. A lot of historical data is offered up in support—for example, world-wide life expectancy is 71, a number probably far higher than you might think, given the pessimistic nature of the media and humankind’s need to focus on the negative. Pinker argues that instead of being so negative, we should spend our time celebrating reason, the science it has produced, and the progress that has been realized because of it.

Of course Pinker wrote this book unaware of the current pandemic, but I would imagine he would argue this moment in time is just a blip on a time-scale in which the world will continue to thrive and improve, with science once again carrying the day. Do you agree?

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, the Osage began to die...under mysterious circumstances.

In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes like Al Spencer, the “Phantom Terror,” roamed—many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll climbed to more than twenty-four, the FBI took up the case. It was one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. Based on years of research and startling new evidence, the book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals.

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad

One of the most frequently asked questions after a talk or training focused on racism is, "What can I do about it?" Robin DiAngelo often pushes back with another question, "How is it that you've managed to not know?"

In an information overloaded world, the question of what to do to undo racism still looms large because it's not just about external information, but about knowledge of self.

Layla F. Saad's work began as an Instagram challenge, and after thousands of challenge participants and downloads of her Me and White Supremacy Workbook, her most recent book carries that work forward by teaching readers to understand their privilege and participation in white supremacy using a step-by-step self reflection process. This reflection is a necessary prerequisite to figuring out "what to do" about racism. After all, "You cannot dismantle what you cannot see. You cannot challenge what you do not understand." -Layla F. Saad

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard Muller

No physics background needed!

We live in complicated, dangerous times. Present and future presidents need to know if North Korea's nascent nuclear capability is a genuine threat to the West, if biochemical weapons are likely to be developed by terrorists, if there are viable alternatives to fossil fuels that should be nurtured and supported by the government, if private companies should be allowed to lead the way on space exploration, and what the actual facts are about the worsening threats from climate change. This is "must-have" information for all presidents―and citizens―of the twenty-first century.

The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston

The bestselling landmark account of the first emergence of the Ebola virus. A highly infectious, deadly virus from the central African rain forest suddenly appears in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. There is no cure. In a few days 90 percent of its victims are dead. A secret military SWAT team of soldiers and scientists is mobilized to stop the outbreak of this exotic "hot" virus.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

In 2008, the United States celebrated the nation's "triumph over race" with the election of Barack Obama. Yet the majority of young black men in major American cities were and continue to be locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status—much like their grandparents before them. This book closely examines the institutional structures that have perpetuated racism in America.  Especially as we see Hispanics and African Americans losing jobs at disproportionate rates as the economy shut down in spring 2020, and more minorities dying from COVID-19 infections than we might expect, the issue of race and institutional racism is more relevant than ever. It is important to be able to understand and critique its history so that we can take steps to reduce these social inequalities in the future.

In this book, Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us—to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Korbert

During the history of the biosphere on earth there have been five major mass extinctions of life so far. This book provides a fascinating review on how these prior extinctions and their causes were discovered, and it provides strong evidence that a sixth mass extinction, caused by human activities, has now begun. Clearly and compellingly written, this book, I think, will capture the interest of both scientists and the science-averse reader.

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

It is understandable that we all normally fail to adequately comprehend the crisis of climate change. Denial is widespread. Even the most concerned among us, and the angriest among us, spend most of our energy and most of our time in ways that ignore the crisis. But even though these reactions may be psychologically understandable, they are not morally or rationally defensible.

We have to directly face the crisis. We have to make avoiding it, or rather reducing the catastrophic destruction it is already set to cause, our most urgent priority. The value of this book is that it details the scientific consensus in plain and appropriately horrifying language. (Endnotes thoroughly cite the scientific research behind each page of the book.) We know what is going to happen if we do not all radically change our lives and take action now. This book describes it.

Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

This collection of essays reimagines black feminism, standards of beauty, racial justice, and what it means to be an American from the perspective of a southern born, working class, African American sociologist who writes with candor, verve, and humor. A brilliant exploration of why the voices of black women matter now more than ever in a world that has ignored, demonized, and marginalized them for so long.

We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer argues that not eating meat or dairy (at least until dinner time) is the biggest way an individual can contribute to saving our planet from climate change.

As you read this book, consider:

- Why are people so much more able to take quick and drastic actions in response to a pandemic than they are in response to climate change?

- What is an individual's role and responsibility to contribute to a cause that requires collective action to succeed?

- If the effect of any action you can take is too small to make a difference, does it matter at all?

- Are you convinced that you should stop eating meat and dairy? Why or why not?

Literature & Fiction

Blindness by José Saramago

How would people react if everyone went blind almost simultaneously? What would these reactions tell us about the human spirit? About our strengths and weaknesses of character? A Nobel Prize-winning author, Portugal’s José Saramago explores these issues in Blindness.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

In 1897, sitting in a library in London, Bram Stoker created Count Dracula, a villain, who continues to frighten and intrigue us. Drawing on Transylvanian legends, Stoker invented a dangerous, bloody, and exciting vampire who combined the intensity of a gothic novel with the terrible reality of the Jack the Ripper murders. From films to novels to computer games, few novels have inspired so many imitators, and few themes have resonated so strongly across generations of readers.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

More than two hundred years after its publication, Shelley’s Frankenstein continues to raise questions that preoccupy us: What does it mean to be human? Are there limits beyond which we ought not to pursue and act on knowledge? To what extent are we responsible for the consequences that follow?

We’ll discuss ways the novel raises and responds to such issues by taking up questions such as these:

Does the novel invite us to admire or condemn Dr. Frankenstein’s ambition and intellectual curiosity? Why is Dr. Frankenstein repulsed by the “Creature” he has made? How does the novel spur us to judge his intentions, judgments, behaviors? What are his ethical responsibilities?

Given that the novel portrays the confusion and pain the Creature suffers—on being rejected by his maker and then subjected to the cruelty of humans who fear and revile him—how are we to judge his acts of vengeance? Other than being physically constructed by Dr. Frankenstein, is the Creature essentially different from humans?

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

  • Instructor: Paula Murray
  • Business, Government, and Society

In this controversial sequel, set two decades after the events in Pulitzer-prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, 26-year-old Jean Louise "Scout" Finch returns home to Maycomb, Alabama to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights era that was transforming the South, Scout's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family and the small town that shaped her.

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn

Ishmael is a unique and captivating spiritual adventure that redefines what it is to be human. We are introduced to Ishmael, a creature of immense wisdom. He has a story to tell, one that no human being has ever heard before. It is the story of man's place in the grand scheme, and it begins at the birth of time. This history of the world has never appeared in any schoolbook. "Does the earth belong to man?" Ishmael asks. "Or does man belong to the earth?"

Me and You by Niccolo’ Ammaniti

From internationally best-selling author Niccolò Ammaniti, comes a funny, tragic, gut-punch of a novel, charting how an unlikely alliance between two outsiders blows open one family’s secrets and how they are forced to confront the very demons they are each struggling to escape. In this novel, Ammaniti focuses on the themes of transformation and the passage from adolescence to adulthood. Published in 2010 in Italian, translated in English in 2012.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s breakout novel, Pnin (1957), tells the story of Timofei Pnin, a Russian-born professor who teaches Russian language and literature at the fictional Waindell College, and gets himself in all kinds of hilarious and unfortunate situations. Endearing, funny, annoying, quirky, and infinitely tragic, Pnin struggles to be fully accepted in his new homeland, and is viewed with a mix of pity and amusement by his colleagues and acquaintances. It is only at his friend’s estate, surrounded by other Russians, that he can fully be himself, appreciated for his brilliance and valued for the rare nobility of his soul. The novel makes us examine such eternal themes as nostalgia, belonging, love, death, and the meaning of life.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

England in the early 19th century was a place with some remarkably restrictive social and economic customs, particularly if you were not born a wealthy male. Few writers offer a more charming and enduring critique of the times in which they lived than Jane Austen, all while telling a really good story. Indeed, this novel has everything that you can reasonably expect from a literary experience: an engaging tale, memorable characters, and surprising insights into the human condition that transcend its 200-year old setting. If you have been putting off reading anything by this talented author, let neither your pride nor your prejudice keep you from choosing this beloved classic.

Robinson Crusoe and Cast Away by Daniel Defoe

For more than 20 years, in the early 1700s, Robinson Crusoe survived in isolation on an uncharted island. He had only a few items rescued from what was left of his ship. Besides being a captivating story of the era of pirates and sailing ships, Robinson Crusoe is generally regarded as one of the very first novels ever written. This classic tale has gone on to influence an entire genre of island survival adventures, including the movie Cast Away, in which the character played by Tom Hanks is stranded on a South Pacific Island after surviving a plane crash. He has only the items he scavenges from the Fed Ex packages that wash ashore from the plane's cargo. Although these two characters were born 250 years apart, they end up in the same situation. One question we might discuss: who was better equipped to survive?

Ruined by Lynn Nottage

Where can you find safety, or love, in a nation torn by civil war? You might look into life in a brothel, where women are protected from gang rape and violence, as Lynn Nottage does in this brilliant Pulitzer-Prize winning play, produced in 2007. The play is based on interviews the author and director conducted in Africa. The New York Times review said of this play: “Ms. Nottage has endowed [her characters] with a strength that transforms this tale of ruin into a clear-eyed celebration of endurance.” The play is raw and beautiful, a tribute to the human spirit. The playwright started out to imitate Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, and then found her own distinctive voice. You may want to have a look at that play also, but that’s not required.

Paul Woodruff is a philosopher, playwright, and former dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies. He has published translations of Greek plays, as well as a book on theater, The Necessity of Theater. His hobbies include furniture design, rowing, and chamber music.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What an unusual time to make the transition from high school to college. Turning to fiction like Station Eleven can help us navigate our current situation.

Twenty years after a devastating flu pandemic, a group of actors dedicate themselves to keeping the arts and humanities alive. The group encounters a prophet/cult leader and the story unfolds by traveling back and forth in time between the days before the pandemic and the group's current dystopian situation.

Despite not being considered science fiction (or a mystery), this book won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2015 and was a National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner award finalist.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful description of life on the Mississippi River. It takes place before the Civil War, though it was written just shy of twenty years after the War ended.

This book is especially relevant for Reading Round-Up for many reasons, but in particular there are two. You are entering The University of Texas at Austin, and probably experiencing a new level of social awareness and responsibility as future leaders of an America that still struggles with a history of racism. You are also now more independent than ever before, and on our campus you will live as individuals in a diverse community that nevertheless faces challenges, as it works to find ways to become the most effective possible "mixing bowl" of people from many different backgrounds.

If we believe that “what starts here changes the world” you might think of your UT years as a time when you can experiment with ways of living that promote real harmony among diverse groups of people. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a catalyst for thinking about racism, and maybe how to understand its pernicious roots in American culture. As such it is a challenging read the day before your first class!

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

What's so impressive about The Great Gatsby? Does F. Scott Fitzgerald's book really fit the bill for "The Great American Novel"? Or is its reputation merely the result of a good choice of title? Our discussion will focus both on what happens (and doesn't happen) in The Great Gatsby, and also on its achievement: how great, finally, is this book? Parallels with our current era will enter into our conversation only if you wish them to.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

T.S. Eliot called The Moonstone "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels." Its multi-narrator format allows us to assess the evidence piecemeal, almost like a jury hears testimony, in order to solve the mystery, and along the way to recognize the elements that Collins introduced that have come to define the detective story we know today.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

How does one turn tragedy into success?  Do we choose our fate, or does fate choose us? Where the Crawdads Sing is a compelling amalgam of a coming of age story, surviving physical and emotional abuse, a murder mystery, and an appreciation for a unique ecosystem. Kya, abandoned as a child to live in the North Carolina swamp, lives a life of loneliness and cruelty, punctuated by kindness and beauty. 

As an environmental scientist I am intrigued by Kya's interest and attention to her environment. Do we need to completely immerse ourselves to understand something? What lessons can we learn from the natural world, and how do we interpret those lessons without our assumptions clouding our vision? Can we fairly study things that we are involved with? When do we want impartial observers, and when is impartiality harmful? 

I look forward to your insights about these questions, and hearing the questions and comments that this book inspires in you.

Philosophy & Politics

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff

This is a behind-the-scenes account of the Trump presidency that examines how the chief executive’s personality meshed with the demands of the job he unexpectedly won. As the 2020 election approaches, this book will be an interesting guide to Mr. Trump’s strengths and weaknesses and what it will take for him to continue in office, to counteract the Democrats, and, perhaps, to expand on his highly unique legacy.

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

In Letters to a Young Contrarian, bestselling author and world-class provocateur Christopher Hitchens inspires the radicals, gadflies, mavericks, rebels, and angry young (wo)men of tomorrow in this short, 160-page page-turner. Exploring the entire range of "contrary positions"–from noble dissident to gratuitous nag–Hitchens introduces the next generation to the minds and the misfits who influenced him, invoking such mentors as Emile Zola, Rosa Parks, and George Orwell.

As is his trademark, Hitchens pointedly pitches himself in contrast to stagnant attitudes across the ideological spectrum. No other writer has matched Hitchens's understanding of the importance of disagreement–to personal integrity, to informed discussion, to true progress, to democracy itself.

On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt

On Bullshit is Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s pithy disquisition on a topic of particular relevance in a political season. Described as “Beautifully, written, lucid, ironic, and and profound,” The New York Times #1 best seller offers an unusually thoughtful take on a usually thoughtless aspect of human interaction. It’s delightful, short, and it’ll make you think.

Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life by Stephen Jay Gould

From the preamble by the author: "I write this little book to present a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution of an issue so laden with emotion and the burden of history that a clear path usually becomes overgrown by a tangle of contention and confusion. I speak of the supposed conflict between science and religion, a debate that exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in logic or proper utility of these entirely different, and equally vital, subjects.”

Stephen Jay Gould passed away shortly after publication of this book. He was a professor of zoology and of geology at Harvard, a pioneering researcher in the field of evolution, and curator for invertebrate paleontology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. He was one of the most influential and widely read authors of popular science of his generation.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt

As you enter your first year at UT Austin, The Coddling of the American Mind is tailor-made for your arrival. It is written by two very competent and thoughtful authors, renowned moral and social-psychologist Jonathan Haidt and constitutional scholar Greg Lukianoff. The book will prepare you for the some of the “political correctness” and sensitivities you will see on any leading college campus and equip you with the perspective and tools to lead a productive college life of searching for the truth, while being able to handle diversity of thought. The book will also help you to play an important role in establishing healthier campuses of diversity and inclusion, rather than tribalism, exclusionism, and intolerance.