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News outlets, blogs and publishing companies have shared countless literary lists, naming what they believe are the top books everyone should read at least once in their life. The works that make the lists are typically familiar titles, ranging from classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird” to more modern novels such as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Just as eloquent stories that have not gained worldwide attention miss being named on the best of the best literary lists, resulting in many readers letting pass a whole section of the literary world. To bring more attention to unknown greats, and to share a few book titles for students on spring break looking for a new read, I sent a survey around to professors in the College of Arts and Humanities at West Chester University to discover the one book they think all students should read. Many of the recommendations that came in were books of striking political and historical perspectives:
Ben Kuebrich, assistant professor of English, recommends “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. Zinn presents a new perspective of history in this book that we might not have gotten from traditional history classes. Kuebrich recommends it since “It is an entryway into a more critical and accurate understanding of US history that is not often taught in US education.”
Dr. Pauline Schmidt, associate professor in English Education and Director of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP), recommends “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. This nonfiction work explores racism and antiracism, helping readers understand the current racial climate in the United States. “These authors are sharing their work at various locations across the country; if we are to move forward on race relations in this country, we need to read, think, and reflect on the message of this text,” Schmidt says regarding this newly released book,
Randall Cream, associate professor of English, recommends “Wind Up Chronicle” by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. This translated novel, published in 1994, a creative detective story about a young man whose marriage is falling apart. “Sometimes your relationship is already over and you need to read a book to acknowledge that truth. This is that book. Read it. It won’t change your life, but it will help you accept the changes that you’ve been unable to see,” suggests Cream.
Emily R. Aguiló-Perez, assistant professor of English, recommends “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese. This nonfiction work goes beyond the colonists’ view of American history to unearth overlooked and hidden stories. Aguiló-Perez believes students should read this work since “history is often taught from the point of view of those in power and in positions of privilege. Important voices and crucial aspects of U.S. history have been erased from curricula and public discourse. This book presents a comprehensive yet accessible look at U.S. history and challenges the narratives that have been produced and disseminated for so long. This is the version for young people (with specific activities and discussion topics), but I also recommend the “regular” version.”
Margaret Ervin, professor of English, recommends “Between the World and Me” by Ta Nahisi Coates. Coates writes this nonfiction work as a letter to his son about what it is like to be Black in the United States. “First of all, it’s beautiful writing. It’s also important writing that introduces an interesting and powerful concept: “people who think they are white,” Ervin says. This is brilliant. Imagine if we said WCU is “80% people who think they are white,” as opposed to saying “20% of students at WCU are underrepresented minorities,” or saying “WCU is a predominantly white institution.” Just imagine changing the way we talk about race to think of being white in terms of an owned delusion and consider the way that would change the way we think about putting the onus on people of color to represent “diversity.“ It names what we are asking people of color to fix for us by being here. Instead, we’d want to work on the delusion itself and talk about power, privilege, history and economics. Coates got some serious flack from Cornell West and others for “valorizing whiteness” and for ignoring class and gender in his analysis (not just in this book). Regardless, this book stays with me years later. I’ve returned to it repeatedly, and I think it’s required reading. Even Toni Morrison said so.”
Michael Burns, professor of English, recommends “Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. The fictional novel details the story of a slave living in the Antebellum South fighting for freedom. Burns recommends this novel since “Underground Railroad is a searing take on the personal, social, cultural and political implications of slavery. In this neo-slave narrative, Whitehead draws on archival research and magical realism to offer a novel rooted in the simultaneously dehumanizing and liberatory foundations of this nation. It is as much a story about our past as it is about our present and future.”
Justin Nevin, adjunct professor of English, recommends Marc Bousquet’s “How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation.” Nevin’s recommendation reveals what it is really like to work at a university. Nevin says of the book, “Students and families value higher education, but few understand important dynamics that shape their postsecondary experience.”
Victoria Tischio, professor of English, recommends “The Lifespan of a Fact” by Jim Fingal and John D’Agata. In an age of fake news, the authors discuss the connection between truth and accuracy with fact-checking, featuring an early draft of an annotated essay by D’Agata to illustrate the discussion. To Tischio, this book “Presents an interesting and lively dialogue via email between a writer and an editor about what counts as truth.”
Timothy Ray, associate professor of English, recommends a road-tripping classic and the topic of an English seminar running in the fall, “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. This 1957 novel details the cross-country travels and escapades of Kerouac and his beatnik friends. Ray says of this iconic work, “It’s a classic for understanding the countercultural movement of the Beats and how it paved the way for the Hippie movement.”
Andrew Sargent, Associate Professor of English, recommends “The Bluest Eye” by Pulitzer prize-winning Toni Morrison. Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye” is about a young, black girl who prays every day for beauty. Sargent says this novel “cuts deep. Centering on the traumatic experiences of Pecola Breedlove, a young African American girl living in Rust Belt Ohio in the early 1940s, the book is a challenging, often disturbing examination of the destructive impact of whiteness on black identity in America. By telling the story of Pecola, her family and her community, Morrison diagnoses how the toxic fiction of white superiority seeps into every facet of American life, and she breathes life into black characters who both resist and—with disastrous results— accommodate themselves to that fiction’s corrosive influence. Perhaps most powerful of all is that Morrison writes in a lyrical, beautiful style that both intensifies the story’s pain and, at the same time, forces us to face our own complicity in Pecola’s fate. In this book, no one gets away clean—the reader least of all.”
Eleanor Shevlin, the Graduate Coordinator of WCU and a professor of English, recommends “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’ first novel, this work tells the story of a boy, Hiram Waller, born into slavery and the trauma that results from this. Walker uses the magical powers he gets from a near death experience to save his family.
“I had so much trouble completing this questionnaire because I have countless books I would recommend,” states Shevlin, “My choice is only one of these — and a recent one — but I picked this work because it is beautifully written, deeply substantive, rich in its use of various sub-genres of the novel, addresses slavery (a legacy with which our country has not yet come to grips), has scenes in 19th-century Philadelphia (read Richard Bell’s nonfiction Stolen after you finish this novel as well as Coates’ nonfiction works) and has drawn positive comparisons to the late, great Toni Morrison’s work).
“I would also highly recommend Colin Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, a novel based on facts; Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous; Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other: A Novel; the nonfiction, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and much more. And I haven’t even touched up the wonderful novels from the 18th, 19th 20th centuries and the fantastic work that has emerged from postcolonial countries since the 1970s.”
I now have a few new book titles to find at my local library and I hope you do too! The novels that these English professors have kindly recommended tell unique and important points of views that are worth your attention. For any readers spending spring break without a book to read, use the time off to pick up one of these great works. You might just find a new favorite.
Maria Marabito is a third year English majoring with a minor in literature and diverse cultures. MM883631@wcupa.edu.