Just before students headed off campus for spring break the Office of Academic Resources held another in what’s becoming a semesterly tradition: a Reading Rainbow event. Reading Rainbow invites students on the verge of a vacation to hear book recommendations from staff and faculty members. Not only do the students walk away with a long list of titles to check out over break, but they also leave with physical books, as the OAR donates free copies to all in attendance.
As March is Women’s History Month, the nine presenters at the March 2 event shared titles by female authors that inspired hope or helped them articulate a dream, vision, or personal goal. Those nine presenters included not only staffers, deans, and faculty members, but also College President Kim Benston, an English professor whose scholarly interests include modern drama, African-American literature and culture studies, and the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, among others.
Associate Dean of the College and Dean for Learning Resources Kelly Wilcox, who directs the OAR and acted as MC for the event, opened the proceedings with a quote from another exceptional woman: Marie Curie. “You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals,” read Wilcox. “To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think can be most useful.”
The nine book recommendations that follow are quite useful. There’s something for everyone—fiction, nonfiction, educational philosophy, social science—to help enrich your personal library. (Continued below gallery)
College President and Francis B. Gummere Professor of English Kim Benston recommends Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson:
Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping portrays characters at the literal edge of society who are misfits not because of alienation or repudiation but because of their instinctive fidelity to their own intuitions and affections. They are faithful not to convention or ambition but to their keen awareness of the ordinary world around them, making basic irreducible stuff—stones, trees, mud, found objects, and one another’s idiosyncrasies—the foundation of their special, non-ideological community. You can feel that what binds them is as pure a kind of love as one can know—what should be the foundation of community—because Robinson brings them alive in language that is incantatory and incandescent, and yet as natural as the music of our own breathing. That bond of expression and feeling is what makes Housekeeping one of the most beautiful and wise books I know.
Senior Associate Dean of the College and Dean of Student Life Steven Watter recommends The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri:
I love to read novels, but I don’t get a chance to read them during the school year. So I collect them for summer. All year long I love looking at my pile. This book was recommended to me by Rajeswari Mohan in the English Department. It’s about immigrants—Bengali immigrants from Calcutta—and it’s about the courage you need to uproot your family and start over. It’s also about generations—how some make their way in the dominant culture but keep their own traditions and cultures, and the strength it takes to do that. I chose The Namesake for this particular Reading Rainbow because of its timeless and uncannily accurate description of the immigrant experience in America. The book evoked memories of my own and my family’s experience and allowed me to gain perspective and clarity on it. Finally, I found the story to be particularly apt in the current national circumstance.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology Juli Grisby recommends Salt by Nayyirah Waheed:
I had a really hard time deciding what book to pick for Reading Rainbow, and I eventually chose Salt by Nayyirah Waheed, who is a U.S.-based poet from South Africa, I believe. I came to it through Instagram. I was thinking about what book impacted me when I was your age, but then I realized that when I was your age it was not the current moment. So instead I thought, “What do I need right now?” And it was fortuitous that I found it on Instagram. As an anthropologist I am concerned with narrating what could be considered “the ephemera of the quotidian” and how to make that beautiful, and Waheed does that through her poetry. Violence and trauma can feel very intimate; I get posts on my phone that hurt me throughout the day and I live with that. So it was nice to get something to look at equally through my phone that was inspiring. So I bought her book, and I love it. It’s a short book of poems very reminiscent of Nikki Giovanni, and I can pick it up throughout the day and find something that speaks to me. As a diasporic, queer woman of color who writes through many, many modes it was inspiring to see that she could articulate something that really spoke to what we were trying to do academically. Some of her words that I wanted to share:
“a black woman
can write of
or the moon.
you may try valiantly to cripple her
but she will still grow flowers in her flesh
a genocide of flowers”
I think something so beautiful as that shows how she shows beauty in the pain. Hope and healing are hard, but we still need to do it. I could go on and on about what I love about her work, but I think it’s recognizing that in these hard moments, healing is also hard and necessary.
Assistant Professor of Linguistics Brook Danielle Lillehaugen recommends Poems, Protest, and a Dream by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz:
I remember the first time I heard the name Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. I was in Mexico, in an archive, working with a historian friend. I looked up and saw this painting of her on the wall—the same painting you see on the cover of the book. Something about her image captivated me and I asked my friend, “Who is that?” “Oooh!” she replied. “You don’t know about Sor Juan Inés de la Cruz? You’re going to love her.” And she was right.
Sor Juana was a 17th century scholar, philosopher, poet, and nun in Colonial Mexico. She read and wrote Spanish and Latin, and could speak and understand the Nahuatl language as it was spoken around where she lived, outside of Mexico City.
I chose this collection of her work primarily because it was a bilingual edition, with facing pages of text—on the left Spanish and on the right English. I think we should all seek out ways to enjoy other languages regardless of our level of expertise. Seeing side-by-side translations also invites the reader into something that is often mysterious: translation. I chose Sor Juana as a woman whose writing inspired hope in me for two reasons. First of all, some of her readings can be read as an argument for allowing all women to have access to education. And while there may be academic debate about that point, it is clear that she herself desired to be educated and made a path for herself where none existed. Secondly, I am inspired by her cleverness, her cheekiness, and her smart-ass-ery in her defense of herself and her choices. At the event I read from In Reply to a Gentleman from Peru in which she cleverly rebuffs a very sexist comment made to her.
Some of us might find it difficult to stand up for ourselves, even if we are confident we are in the right. Sometimes I find that is true of me. Reading Sor Juana inspires me because if she can create such a clever retort, and in rhyme and meter at that– then there is hope for me, too!
Director of Residential Life Marianne “Smitty” Smith recommends Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal by Rachel Naomi Remen:
Rachel Naomi Remen is a physician, therapist, professor of medicine, and long-term survivor of a chronic illness. I connected with her pioneering work in the field of integrative and holistic medicine, the mind-body/health connection, and hospice care because my background is in the sciences and social work and the intersection and positive influence each has on the other.
I first heard of this book in 1997 while listening to Dan Gottlieb interview the author on WHYY. I immediately went out and bought her book. It contains stories taken from Dr. Remen’s work with people with life-threatening illnesses and training doctors. I found the wisdom in the book contained great humor as well as poignancy.
I liked that I could pick up the book and read one story at a time. And I really connected with her approach and philosophy, which is centered on the importance of sitting together “at the kitchen table” and storytelling, and how this storytelling is a passing along of wisdom about life and how people get through challenging times. “The kitchen table levels the playing field. Everyone’s story matters,” she writes.
As my life had taken many unexpected twists and turns, I found the wisdom contained in these stories very helpful. And I found the following quote, from one of the people who shared their story in the book, particularly delightful: “When you are walking on thin ice you might as well dance!”
Fitness Center Director and Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Cory Walts recommends Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck:
I chose this book because I’m an avid reader of self-improvement and leadership material and this book was referenced time and time again. Dweck is a world-renowned Stanford psychologist whose research has proven the power of mindset. In this book she talks about the differences between people with a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe success defines an individual, while those with a growth mindset think effort does. Those with a fixed mindset believe your qualities are carved in stone, while those with a growth mindset believe qualities can be cultivated through effort.
I loved how Dweck associated that concept with various facets of life—coaching, relationships, parenting—and also talked about how the growth mindset can be trained.
HCAH Program Manager Noemí Fernández recommends Mexican Enough:My Life Between the Borderlines by Stephanie Elizondo Griest:
Of the seminal female authored books I have read, I chose Mexican Enough for several reasons. First, the book on the whole speaks to a central humanist question of belonging that often translates to a lifelong exploration of who I am, where did I come from, and how to I get to where I am going? And this is a universal experience most, if not all, human beings can relate to at some point in their lives. Second, the author uses her specific background as a Mexican-American to explore the complicated relationship that many 1.5 and second generation immigrants have with their inherited cultural background in contrast to their lived experiences. Growing up away from or at interspersed periods with the “motherland” creates both imposed and internal conflicts about being “enough” of a place or of a people or of a culture to feel a sense of community, of belonging, and of home. Lastly, I chose this book because much of it takes place during the very contentious 2006 Mexican presidential election, which led to many months of protest and civil disobedience. And I think much of the current cultural and political climate in the United States stems from the question of what it means to be “American enough,” and I hope anyone who reads this book can either begin to understand why it is such a complicated question and/or can start to reconcile their own questions about who they are and where they belong.
CCPA Programming and Communications Coordinator Casey Rau recommends Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte:
What I love about Jane Eyre is more about the teacher who assigned me the book than the book itself. My 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Kemp, assigned me one of her favorite books for our final project. Not only was my teacher brilliant, she was also a Bronte sister scholar. So the fact that she chose me for this book gave me confidence that she knew I could handle a challenge. She was the first teacher who really pushed me and believed in me academically. We worked through reading Jane Eyre together, and she would take the time to listen to my insights and treated me like an intellectual equal, even though I am sure my thoughts were not that groundbreaking.
I was extremely lucky to have Mrs. Kemp’s support, because up until that point I never had a teacher who believed in me and pushed me to do my best. She encouraged me to chase my dreams and always seemed confident in my academic abilities. Since our class together, I have strived to do better, to excel, and to never be complacent.
Associate Director of the CPGC Janice Lion recommends Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks:
I first discovered bell hooks in college, and she articulated things about race, class, and gender that were—and are—interesting and inspiring to me. Her writing is really accessible, even though she is an academic. I chose her book for Reading Rainbow because she affirms the importance of teaching and higher education as a site for social justice movements. She inspires me to build my capacity as a community educator. I also think she offers hope and a plan for building community at a time when it’s sorely needed. I also wanted to share a quote from this book: ” Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.”
Books Photo by Brook Danielle Lillehaugen
Photos by Claire Chenyu Wang ’19