Since 2015, the Office of Academic Resources has hosted a series of panel discussions, called Reading Rainbow after Levar Burton’s PBS show that encouraged children to read. These discussions, usually hosted the day before a College vacation, invite a panel of Haverford community members to bring a book recommendation to the group based on a theme. The OAR, then, buys physical copies of all of the panelists’ chosen titles so that students who attend not only leave with a bunch of reading suggestions, but actually with something to read over the impending break.
This spring’s event, held after spring break for a change, featured seven people—from College President Kim Benston to current junior Talia Scott—discussing books they would have given to themselves as a young adult. The OAR picked that theme in the hopes that Reading Rainbow’s discussion would tackle questions related to navigating moments of change, how the panelists look back on their college years, and how best to handle the challenges of young adulthood.
Spring break may be in the rearview mirror, but if you’re looking for a book to take outside on those forthcoming sunny, warm spring days, our panelists have a few suggestions for you:
College President and Francis B. Gummere Professor of English Kimberly Benston
Fear and Trembling: Søren Kierkegaard, translated by Walter Lowrie
In thinking about assigning a book to myself as a young person today (keeping in mind that for me that book could be Forty Ways to Stay Fit at Fifty!), I begin from three perspectives: living at a moment in American history when the dominant feelings, no matter your ideology or identity, are fear and angst; observing a culture in which rampant consumerism is such that even our most cherished ideas, beliefs, and identities are often manufactured and valued for what they purchase; and experiencing as president the challenge of sometimes making decisions that inevitably lead to contradictory ethical effects, suggesting both the impossibility and necessity of genuine ethical action. I see this moment as one for which I’ve spent my life preparing, insofar as it demands a recognition that the work of doubt and hope, and the tasks of rigorous and ethical thinking, are not challenges we ever overcome but in fact constitute the continuous, endless labor of our lives. Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, though written 175 years ago, feels freshly valuable from the vantage of that recognition. Feeling that his society was seeking refuge from pervasive anxiety in reductive, easily retailed systems and clichés, Kierkegaard presented his readers with a deliberately difficult, indeed unsolvable, ethical dilemma by retelling in four different ways the biblical story in which Abraham, heeding without question a command from God, nearly sacrifices his beloved son Isaac by slitting his throat on Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22). Abraham, Kierkegaard declares, is a “hero of faith,” and yet he acknowledges, too, that he must seem from any rational, ethical perspective nearly a murderer. In beautifully lyrical and philosophically rigorous terms, Kierkegaard makes the reader face a dilemma that he will not resolve for us, instead asking us to consider that Abraham is “heroic” because he lives simultaneously in the face of love and horror, somehow holding in himself the terrible, liberating contradictions of ethics and faith. He makes us understand, each in our own way (as we each read difficult texts in overlapping but different ways), that anxiety is the beginning, not the end, of our freedom, and freedom is the beginning, not the end, of our responsibility. And he does this by writing a text that does not give us ideas but instead provokes us to think, and to embrace thinking (like doubting and believing, fearing and loving) as the endless task of our lives. Thus Kierkegaard can write in the book’s Epilogue that he sought to write of a condition that is forever “young and beautiful and lovely” because it is forever “difficult and inspiring.”
Instructor in the Bi-Co Education Program Chanelle Wilson-Poe
The Alchemist: Paulo Coelho
I chose The Alchemist because it is an inspirational text that reminds me to trust the process and experiences that I have, while pursuing my goals. As a person who likes to plan, and then rushes to get things done, it reminds me to slow down and enjoy life. This book is about a young man who endures a great deal of trials on his journey, but they all get him to where he needs to be at the end. The Alchemist is particularly poignant for young people because it can remind them to take time to enjoy this process, the college experience, not to stress too much about the future, while taking positive steps in pursuit of our goals. Something I still need to reminds myself of, every now and then. My favorite quote from the text is, “And when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” This resonates with me because I am reminded that what I want will happen, in due time, and that things are being set in motion, that I don’t even know about to help me get there. But on the way there are so many beautiful and potentially, trying, lessons that I can go through, but they will all help me to create a better version of myself. However, if I’m rushing too quickly and not paying attention, I could miss out on a message that I need the most, for my life. The Alchemist is a tale that has all the elements that people may look for in stories: legends, passion, heartache, love, dreams, journey, gold, travel, knowledge, and treasure, brought together in a glorious message of faith, happiness, hard work, and achievement.
Lecturer in the Bi-Co Education Program and Assistant Director of the Chesick Scholars Program Heather Curl ’03
Good Woman: Lucille Clifton
It is a compelling book of poetry about relationships, womanhood, love, faith, and family. In my early-20s, it helped to show me the power of analysis and how one’s lens and life informs the analysis they might provide/think/contribute. In addition to rich content that informed my teaching and brought about reflection on my own life, it also made poetry (a genre I had previously thought was “not for me”) accessible. I would have loved to read it earlier in my life.
Student Life Graduate Assistant Sarah Fears
Krik? Krak!: Edwidge Danticat
I chose Krik? Krak! because it was a book I had to read for an undergraduate class, “Literature of the Black Diaspora,” and at the time I never paid attention to it. I found the book again about two years later and reread it, and realized that themes in the book were things that I was struggling with in my personal life the first time I read it. Those themes included struggling to retain culture in new and predominantly white spaces, stories of liberation and finding oneself ,and the importance of being part of a larger community. Krik? Krak! is a call and response in storytelling, and when I found this book again, it reminded me that I can call out krik? and someone who understands my story and shares my intersecting identities will respond with a krak! to know that I’m not alone. I would give this books to my younger self because I needed to be reminded that my story is important, even the chapters that I blatantly struggle through, and because it is a reminder that I am every woman’s story that came before me. That inspires me every day, and I hope that others out there read this collection of nine short stories that is powerful, full of romance, tragedy, and triumph.
Office of Academic Resources Graduate Assistant Charlie Bruce
Exile and Pride: Eli Clare
When asked for a book I would give to my younger self, I flipped through the titles on my book shelf of books from college that left a strong impression. Exile and Pride, the memoir of trans and disability justice activist Eli Clare, jumped out almost immediately. As a young person, I’ve been struggling to find harmony and balance between my identities as a queer person and [being] from the South. As a young person coming of age, I saw these two identities as in opposition, especially when I moved back and forth between quaint southern towns and metropolitan cities. When I took a class with Giovanna Di Chiro at Swarthmore, this [book] was one of my favorites from her memoir class, because it spoke to me directly. Clare grew up in rural Oregon in a small town and moved to California to attend college. Through his non-linear personal narrative, Clare deftly acknowledges the tension between these two identities that arose as he moved between different spaces. What is most poignant is the way he uses metaphor to find the bridge between them. The mountain as both the visual symbol for rural living (as a native to the Blue Ridge, I could relate), but also the mountain of queer kinship, the friends you need to survive in a transphobic world. For any young person who has felt at odds with their environment or torn between identities, this book is a friend.
Program Coordinator of the Office of Multicultural Affairs Ben Hughes
Bruce Lee: Artist of Life: edited by John Little
I chose [this book] because it offers a framework for interacting with the world that makes much more space for difference than what I had at 18, and, really, until very recently. The text is a collection of Lee’s philosophical writings and musing inspired by his practice of Gung Fu and other Asian philosophical traditions. Stemming from ideas around combat, Lee extrapolates to what it means to engage people not by matching/countering what they are bringing, but receiving them with what complements what they’ve brought. For me, it deeply connects with concepts of hospitality and community that I’ve also been exploring. The notion of hospitality and combat as iterations of the same form is really powerful, radical rethink of what our relationships with even our “adversaries” could look like. I haven’t finished it yet, so I’m interested to see what else is here, and even the portion I’ve read is enough to have fundamentally changed the way I navigated college and the people I met along the way.
Talia Scott ’19
The Bell Jar: Sylvia Plath
I chose The Bell Jar because it was a text assigned to me in high school and I did not truly pick it up and read it until the summer before my freshman year at Haverford. Furthermore, the protagonist, Esther, spoke to me because I felt like I was somewhat living her experiences. She was unsure of herself at times, she compared herself to her peers, her life was centered around academics, and she was experiencing mental health issues, but throughout the novel, she is on a journey to recovery which is inspiring given all that she goes through. Like many at Haverford, I too have experienced some of what Esther goes through and as the youngest panelist, I wanted to pass on the following messages to my peers in the room: Your life is more than academics. It is okay to feel unsure. You are not alone. Seek out help when you need it. Be confident in yourself and your abilities. Try not to compare yourself to others, and take time to take care of yourself and your mental health. These are some of the things I took away from The Bell Jar, and I chose to share it because I wish I constantly reminded myself of these messages during my time here at Haverford and I think these messages need to be shared with everyone at any point in their life.
Photos by Claire Blood-Cheney ’20