A Texas-Sized Reading List 2021

Reading Round-Up Returns to Campus This Fall

The Reading Round-Up is a popular summer book club that introduces new Longhorns to the college environment at The University of Texas at Austin. Over the summer, incoming freshmen choose from a large selection of books curated by faculty members. Then students and professors meet in small groups on campus the day before fall classes start. This beloved back-to-school tradition helps kick off the new academic year, connects students with one another and offers a more personal introduction to the outstanding faculty across departments.

Last year, the 2020 Round-Up gathered over video chat. This fall the reading groups will have a chance to meet up in person. This gathering will be a milestone moment in a return to normal for UT Austin. So far, 764 students have registered, and incoming students can still sign up. It’s not too late. There are still lots of great books with seats open.

“I love the Reading Round-Up and the chance to talk with new students about a book we all read over the summer, but I’m especially excited to reopen campus and welcome our newest Longhorns to meet with me in person,” says Brent Iverson, dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies, which hosts the event. “It’s always a worthwhile experience and a great way to kick off the fall semester, but because we are emerging from our COVID hibernations, this feels much bigger than normal, really special.”

The event isn’t open to the public, but the reading list of over 60 books is a great resource for anyone looking for the next worthwhile read. Whether you are interested in fiction, biographies or nonfiction, this list has something for everyone.


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.


Grit: The Power of Perseverance and Passion by Angela Duckworth

University of Texas first year students 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 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.


How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom by Matt Ridley

This book argues that we need to change the way we think about innovation. What if we saw innovation as an incremental, bottom-up process that happens to society as a direct result of the human habit of exchange, rather than an orderly, top-down process developing according to a plan? This book tells the lively stories of scores of innovations, how they started and why they succeeded or, in some cases, failed.


Our Iceberg is Melting by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber

Our Iceberg is Melting uses a fable-like story about penguins to explain the complexities of creating organizational change in the face of uncertainty. Written in a style everyone can understand, the book acts as a crash course in change management based on the author’s award-winning research. In our dynamic and turbulent world this interesting book, with its many levels, is a must read.


Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution by Brené Brown

Struggle, Brown writes, can be our greatest call to courage, and rising strong our clearest path to deeper meaning, wisdom, and hope. The physics of vulnerability is simple: If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall. The book tells us what it takes to get back up, and how owning our stories of disappointment, failure, and heartbreak gives us the power to write a daring new ending.


The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A “black swan” is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans underlie almost everything about our world, from the rise of religions to events in our own personal lives.

This book changed how I view and approach the world. Fundamentally, humans think about the world and future events linearly. This is an adaption to survival on the savannah of Africa not at all suited for the complex universe and human affairs. The author is provocative and polarizing – this book will echo in your head for a long time to come.


The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

Nobody’s perfect. So why are we so hard on ourselves when we don’t achieve perfection? As a new student at a large, competitive university, the lessons found inside this insightful guide, which Forbes named one of “five books that will actually change your outlook on life,” may be exactly what you need. University researcher in human behavior and best-selling author Brené Brown shows us how to cultivate the courage and compassion to embrace your imperfections, overcome self-consciousness and fear, and live authentically.


The Strange Order of Things by Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, sets out to investigate “why and how we emote, feel, use feelings to construct our selves … and how brains interact with the body to support such functions.” This book gives us a new way of comprehending the world and our place in it.


What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain

Want to know the secrets of college success, of achieving real college success in these next four years? You can find the answer in this book, which is based on years of research. The best college teachers “engage and challenge students and provoke impassioned responses.” As a co-creator of your education, college success involves you seeking challenges and inspiration and digging into your passions. This book shows you how together, the best college teachers and the best college students lead to gaining the highest expertise and readiness to tackle your career, but also your life.


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.


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.


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.


Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist by Judith Heumann

“Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives.” This is the memoir of Judith Heumann, an icon in the disability rights community, known for her leadership in the San Francisco 504 sit-ins. These sit-ins led to the signing and implementation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Judith’s memoir is both a history lesson on disability rights activism in the United States and an intimate storytelling of her life from childhood to present. It is her story, but also the story of the history, movement, and future of disability justice.


Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century by Edited by Alice Wong

In time for the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, activist Alice Wong brings together a collection of personal essays by contemporary disabled writers.

From original pieces by up-and-coming authors like Keah Brown and Haben Girma, to blog posts, manifestos, eulogies, testimonies to Congress, and beyond: this anthology gives a glimpse of the vast richness and complexity of the disabled experience, highlighting the passions, talents, and everyday lives of this community. It invites readers to question their own assumptions and understandings. It celebrates and documents disability culture in the now. It looks to the future and past with hope and love.


Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.


Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller

Know My Name is a New York Times bestseller and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. In it, Miller challenges her depiction in the media as the anonymous “Emily Doe,” who survived a Stanford undergraduate student’s sexual assault in 2015. In her memoir, Miller reclaims the public narrative about her and asserts her full humanity while critiquing the criminal justice system and the treatment of sexual assault victims in the United States.


The Little Bach Book by David Gordon

The Little Bach Book is not a comprehensive biography of J. S. Bach but a collection of curious facts and observations about his life and the times in which he lived. It is light and fun reading for those who love the music of J. S. Bach but don’t know much about him.


The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann

This book looks into the future: How should we approach keeping earth livable for humans and the other organisms we share the planet with? Wizards rely on technology to help us, and prophets urge us to reduce the resources that we use. Few believe only one solution is the answer, but while complex answers are often correct, they do not always make for compelling arguments. We find people often arguing from one of these perspectives, maybe not recognizing the history behind them or the implications that they entail. So let’s delve into these two seemingly opposed approaches to our future, understand their background, see how they have impacted us thus far, and try to discern what we should do moving forward.


Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

In September 1960, John Steinbeck embarked on a journey across America. He felt that he might have lost touch with the country, with its speech, the smell of its grass and trees, its color and quality of light, the pulse of its people. To reassure himself, he set out on a voyage of rediscovery of the American identity, accompanied by a distinguished French poodle named Charley; and riding in a three-quarter-ton pickup truck named Rocinante. His course took him through almost forty states.

This book is an intimate look at one of America’s most beloved writers in the later years of his life—a self-portrait of a man who never wrote an explicit autobiography. Written during a time of upheaval and racial tension in the South—which Steinbeck witnessed firsthand—it is a stunning evocation of America on the eve of a tumultuous decade.


History & Social Science

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.


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


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.


Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

During the height of the Great Depression, nine working-class college students on the University of Washington varsity crew team set off to do the impossible: defeat the German rowing team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It’s one of those stories that I intentionally slowed my reading pace to savor every minute of it! (And, if you aren’t knowledgeable about rowing, that’s OK. But, I was surprised to find a new interest in the sport after reading this.) It is a compelling account of how these all-American underdogs beat the odds and found hope in the most desperate of times.


Christmas: A Candid History by Bruce David Forbes

Whether you love Christmas, hate Christmas, or have very mixed feelings about it, Christmas is an extremely strange holiday with a fascinating history. From reading this book and discussing it with Religious Studies professor Brent Landau, you’ll learn: how Santa can squeeze down a chimney; why the Puritans banned Christmas; whether Jesus was really born in Bethlehem; and much more!


Icebound by Andrea Pitzer

Icebound is a narrative non-fiction account of Dutch explorer William Barents’ third expedition in the sixteenth century off the frozen coast of Nova Zembla.This is a great piece of reportage and writing for students interested in history, literary non-fiction, journalistic narrative, expedition tales and good, old-fashioned survival stories.


Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed

A penetrating, acutely insightful, memoir and historical analysis of the importance of Juneteenth from the eminent Harvard University Professor and Pulitzer Prize Winner and Texas native Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed. This is a must read for those interested in Texas History and how that history intersects and, at times collides, with Black, LatinX, and Native American and indigenous histories. A must read for our students at UT especially.


Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP by Sarah Schulman

ACT UP, New York, a broad and unlikely coalition of activists from all races, genders, sexualities, and backgrounds, changed the world. Armed with rancor, desperation, intelligence, and creativity, it took on the AIDS crisis with an indefatigable, ingenious, and multifaceted attack on the corporations, institutions, governments, and individuals who stood in the way of AIDS treatment for all. Twenty years in the making, this book is a comprehensive political history of ACT UP and American AIDS activism. Discussion will focus on excerpts from this extensive book.


Letters to My White Male Friends by Dax-Devlon Ross

Note: The book is available for pre-order until its release date of June 15. The author will join us during our discussion session.

This book speaks directly to the millions of middle-aged white men who are suddenly awakening to race and racism. White men are finally realizing that simply not being racist isn’t enough to end racism. These men want deeper insight not only into how racism has harmed Black people, but, for the first time, into how it has harmed them. They are beginning to see that racism warps us all. This book promises to help men who have said they are committed to change and to develop the capacity to see, feel and sustain that commitment so they can help secure racial justice for us all.

Ross helps readers understand what it meant to be America’s first generation raised after the civil rights era. He explains how we were all educated with colorblind narratives and symbols that typically, albeit implicitly, privileged whiteness and denigrated Blackness. He provides the context and color of his own experiences in white schools so that white men can revisit moments in their lives where racism was in the room even when they didn’t see it enter. Ross shows how learning to see the harm that racism did to him, and forgiving himself, gave him the empathy to see the harm it does to white people as well. Ultimately, Ross offers white men direction so that they can take just action in their workplace, community, family, and, most importantly, in themselves, especially in the future when race is no longer in the spotlight.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

As the worst days of the pandemic seem to be behind us, eviction moratoria will be lifted and hundreds of thousands of Americans will be houseless. In the meantime, many working Americans find themselves priced out of the housing market and unable to replicate the life of their childhood. In Austin, we have seen this issue play out in the debate about public camping and the current policy to ban it. The combination of low wages and high housing costs has created a class of Americans we might call nomads.

Transient older Americans have taken to the road by the tens of thousands in RVs, travel trailers, and vans, forming a growing community of nomads. Finding that social security comes up short and often underwater on mortgages, these nomads make up a new, low-cost labor pool for employers.

In a secondhand vehicle she christens “Van Halen,” Bruder hits the road to get to know her subjects more intimately. Accompanying her subjects from campground toilet cleaning to warehouse product scanning to desert reunions, Bruder tells a compelling, eye-opening tale of the dark underbelly of the American economy―one that foreshadows the precarious future that may await many more of us. At the same time, she celebrates the exceptional resilience and creativity of Americans who have given up ordinary rootedness to survive.


Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped traces the history of racism and the many political, literary, and philosophical narratives that have been used to justify slavery, oppression, and genocide. Framed through the ideologies and thoughts of segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists throughout history, the book demonstrates that the “construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically,” and that this power has been used to systemically and systematically oppress Black people in the United States for more than four hundred years.


The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks

We have certain ideas about the roots of our feelings. As a biological anthropologist, I have been taught to look for evolutionary explanations. In my research, I study social relationships in chimpanzees with an eye toward comparing them to those of humans. But when thinking about humans, we don’t always need to guess what our ancestor of one or two million years ago was like. There’s enough variation within people today, and it is important to identify and analyze the social forces shaping our feelings and behavior. That is why I am impressed by bell hooks and her analysis of why men, notably in the United States, feel the way they do in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. The patriarchal system we live in, hooks, argues, leads men to be detached from their emotions. Ignoring our feelings makes it harder to love, and yet love and belonging is what everyone seeks. How can boys grow up to be feminist men? How can men form intimate relationships with others?

This book provides a Black feminist framework for exploring men, relationships, and love. Grappling with the ideas outlined in this book provides an important backdrop for rethinking many academic disciplines. It will also likely change how we live our lives.


What If by Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe, founder of web comic XKCD, answers questions from readers, arbitrating great science debates. In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. Studded with memorable cartoons and infographics, What If explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel much the smarter for having read.


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.


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.


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.


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? Please note: parallels with our own time may well enter into our conversation.


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.


A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Ove is a curmudgeon, now alone and purposeless after losing his wife of 40 years. He is a sad, cranky old man who is ready to abandon the world. But when new neighbors move in next door, unexpected and comical events unfold to remind us of the impact we have on one another.


Blackout by Connie Willis

This is the first volume of a two-volume novel about time travel from a future Oxford University to World War II England. Historians immerse themselves in the past to learn the reality of day-to-day experience in an extraordinary time, but then things go really wrong. This novel won the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards, and it explores the way heroism and love (agape, not eros) can develop and manifest in unexpected ways.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Are you ready to look into the future? Written more than 50 years ago, this prophetic novel portrays a post-apocalyptic world in which men and machines are pitted against one another with some surprising results. Widely regarded for its influence on a generation of science fiction writers, author Philip Dick’s prose is insightful and psychologically engaging as he delves into the very essence of what it means to be human. The book is also the basis for the popular film Blade Runner, thereby securing its reputation as a cult classic.


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go, a novel by the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, places us in a world in which cloning has become common. The novel conveys the breadth of the human capacity for hope and the depth of the human capacity for selfishness and cruelty. Ishiguro explores both in his characteristically restrained and beautiful prose.


Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (trans. Lydia Davis)

Swann’s Way (Du côté de chez Swann), is a difficult book to define. It was the first volume of seven that make up Proust’s magnum opus known as In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu): the world’s longest novel (and in the mind of many readers, the greatest). Reading this first volume on its own, as Proust’s first readers in 1913 did, immerses us in the philosophical questions that obsessed him. The narrator’s search to recapture “lost time” is, in essence, a search to create meaning for the whole of one’s life by remembering it through the transformative sensibility of an artist. A spoonful of tea and cake crumbs opens the floodgates of involuntary recollection for Proust’s fictional alter ego, unleashing an uncannily modern exploration of society and art, imagination and reality, desire and loss, and challenging us to question the nature of our own consciousness. 

Here’s a link to the Penguin paperback I recommend.


The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dreams by Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho tells the magical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who yearns to travel in search of a worldly treasure as extravagant as any ever found. The treasures Santiago finds along the way teaches us, as only a few stories can, about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path, and, above all, following our dreams.


The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award for the best science fiction novel in 2016. The story is about an alternate world called the Stillness, which frequently experiences near-extinction events called “Fifth Seasons” caused by seismic activity. The book follows three women and their stories in this unforgiving setting. You can find the NY Times description of the book here. As a big Sci-Fi/Fantasy fan, I am excited to check it out and would love the chance to discuss it with you


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give is a novel about a young Black girl who witnesses the police murder of her childhood friend. It was written in part to increase awareness and understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement, and addresses issues such as identity, race relations, police brutality, code switching, and the challenges facing Black families


The Queen of Spades and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin

Note: You are only asked to read “Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin” and “The Queen of Spades” (about 100 pages total). Other works in the book are optional.

Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837) is widely considered to be the father of modern Russian literature and Russia’s greatest poet. “The Belkin Tales” is a collection of five delightful short stories that have it all: duels, elopement, romantic encounters, getting lost in a blizzard, and family drama. It is both a parody of popular literary genres and a unique glimpse into the life of Russian nobles and peasants.

An inspiration for three operas, the short story “The Queen of Spades” (1834) is a dark tale about gambling, madness, greed, and betrayal. Did the protagonist really see a ghost? Did the ghost lie to him? Can one build their happiness on the tragedy of others? Join us this summer in our exploration of these gems of Russian literature!


The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

This novel retells the story of Homer’s Iliad in the voice of Briseis, the captive woman whose seizure by Agamemnon sparks Achilles’ rage and sets the plot in motion, but who is allowed to speak only a few lines in the Iliad itself. From Briseis’ perspective, and from the perspective of the other captive women in the Achaean camp, the familiar story takes on a new dimension, giving us a sense of the way war affects all those who are pulled into its orbit, not just the male combatants.


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart follows a Nigerian man, Okonkwo, both before and after European colonizers arrive in his village in the late nineteenth century. It depicts both the native Igbo (Okonkwo and his clan) and the colonizing Europeans with complexity and realism. Achebe’s characters are engaging and relatable examples of humanity. At the same time, they are finely realized inhabitants of a specific time and place that is different from ours and yet also continues to have a significant impact on our world today. This book was ground-breaking because it was one of the first African novels written by an African that was read widely around the world.


We by Evgeny Zamyatin

Before Brave New World…before 1984…there was We. A page-turning futuristic adventure, a masterpiece of wit and black humor that accurately predicted the horrors of Stalinism, We is the classic dystopian novel. It is also an enjoyable bit of 1920s-era science fiction. Fun… and strangely apt in 2021!


Philosophy & Politics

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.


Atlas of AI by Kate Crawford

What happens when artificial intelligence saturates political life and depletes the planet? How is AI shaping our understanding of ourselves and our societies? Drawing on more than a decade of research, award-winning scholar Kate Crawford reveals how AI is a technology of extraction: from the minerals drawn from the earth, to the labor pulled from low-wage information workers, to the data taken from every action and expression. This book reveals how this planetary network is fueling a shift toward undemocratic governance and increased inequity. Rather than taking a narrow focus on code and algorithms, Crawford offers us a material and political perspective on what it takes to make AI and how it centralizes power. This is an urgent account of what is at stake as technology companies use artificial intelligence to reshape the world.


Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer

Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings—asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass—offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In a rich braid of reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.


Free Speech on Campus by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman

A university chancellor and a law school dean—both constitutional scholars who teach a course in free speech to undergraduates—argue that campuses must provide supportive learning environments for an increasingly diverse student body but can never restrict the expression of ideas. This book provides the background necessary to understanding the importance of free speech on campus and offers clear prescriptions for what colleges can and can’t do when dealing with free speech controversies.

Note: Please read the 2018 edition with the new preface.


Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning through Observation by Shari Tishman

This book argues for the importance of slow looking in learning environments both general and specialized, formal and informal, and its connection to major concepts in teaching, learning, and knowledge. A museum-originated practice increasingly seen as holding wide educational benefits, slow looking contends that patient, immersive attention to content can produce active cognitive opportunities for meaning-making and critical thinking that may not be possible though high-speed means of information delivery. Addressing the multi-disciplinary applications of this purposeful behavioral practice, this book draws examples from the visual arts, literature, science, and everyday life, using original, real-world scenarios to illustrate the complexities and rewards of slow looking.


Talking to My Daughter about the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism by Yanis Varoufakis

What is money? Debt? Labor? Capital? Inflation? Deflation? Bitcoin? This thin book gives a tour of economics through unexpected examples –from Star Trek, to Frankenstein, to Oedipus. Don’t be put off by the title – the book makes difficult ideas easy to understand but is not patronizing. I enjoyed reading it and recommend it often. What I find particularly useful is that this book makes you think. You may find that you agree or disagree with the author’s conclusions, but if you are looking for food for thought, you will not end up hungry.


The Language of God by Francis S. Collins

From the Preamble by the author: “Here is the central question of this book: In this modern era of cosmology, evolution, and the human genome, is there still the possibility of a richly satisfying harmony between the scientific worldviews? I answer with a resounding yes!…Science’s domain is to explore nature God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul—and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms.”

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. has served as Director of the National Institutes of Health since 2009, overseeing the work of the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world, spanning the spectrum from basic to clinical research. Dr. Collins is a physician-geneticist noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the international Human Genome Project, which culminated in 2003 with the completion of a finished sequence of the human DNA. Thus, Dr. Collins must be considered as one of the top medical scientists in the world, and at the same time he is a leading thinker and expositor of the Christian faith. This book is an honest and insightful look at the controversial interface between science and faith.