“While most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality.”

Trevor Noah’s mother was black and his father was white, which was a problem in South Africa in 1984.  The Immorality Act of 1927 prohibited “illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives” and said that such acts could result in imprisonment. Until the laws changed when Noah was six, it was risky for him to be seen with his parents. At any time, the government could strip his parents of their custody and send Noah off to an orphanage.  This memoir is “essential reading” because it does more to “expose apartheid than any other recent history book or academic text.”

Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Spiegel & Grau, 2016, p. 27.

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“It tells the stories of two revolutions.”

Revolutions, indeed. This book is about Revolutionary War era hero Alexander Hamilton, whose picture is on our ten-dollar bill.  It’s also about the revolutionary way his story is told by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who uses hip-hop, harpsichords, and a largely non-Caucasian cast in his Broadway production of Hamilton. Unlike any previous book about a play, this work has its own share of surprises, including samples of text messages from Miranda, interviews, pictures of notes and historical documents. If postmodernism is about defying structure, this book is a postmodern success story in which all assumptions are discarded and all ideas are welcome.

Miranda, Lin-Manuel and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton: The Revolution. Grand Central, 2016, p. 10.

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“Until recently, we simply didn’t know how immense this problem was, or how serious the consequences, unless we had suffered them ourselves.”

When Matthew Desmond was growing up, money was tight.  Sometimes the gas got shut off, and his parents eventually lost their home to foreclosure. This week, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his nonfiction book Evicted, which is about eight families in Milwaukee and their evictions. Vivid and unsettling: it’s a difficult book to read.  The stories are sad, but the facts are even more unpleasant:  only one of four low-income households that qualify for housing assistance gets it.  Where do most of the subsidies for housing go? To families with six-figure incomes, who receive tax benefits for home ownership.

Desmond, Matthew.  Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Crown, 2016, p. 295.

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“It comes over him in a wave: He’s been wrong about his Tempest, wrong for twelve years.”

Anyone can retell as classic story, but changing a play by Shakespeare while remaining true to the themes and lessons of the original requires skill. Changes were needed, Margaret Atwood told a standing-room-only crowd in Madison, Wisconsin this week, to  make Miranda (the daughter who grows up on a deserted island) a believable character. Atwood said her biggest challenge was preserving the important relationship between the father and daughter after changing the setting that brought them close together. Atwood did this as only Atwood could do it, adding grace and depth — and a little magic —  to this unforgettable father-daughter relationship.

Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. Hogarth, 2016, p. 291.

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The students felt that a few could carry the discussion for the rest of the class . . .

. . . while the majority of students adhered to a ‘norm of silence’ – not perceiving themselves as obligated to participate in the conversation (50).  Jay R. Howard, a sociologist, calls this the norm of “the consolidation of responsibility,” which tends to be the default setting in the college or university classroom, unless the instructor creates new norms. Awareness is the first step in changing the patterns,  which can lead to course design decisions that include activities that require student-to-student interaction and student-to-instructor interaction. Because this book provides specific, research-based suggestions, it’s on my list of “Ten Best Books for College Teachers.”

Howard, Jay R. Dicussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online. Jossey-Bass, 2015, p. 50.

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“What’s past is prologue”

At first glance, this line from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” suggests that history repeats itself.  This view is written in stone – literally – on the base of the National Archives’ sculpture.  The Harvard Gazette and the University of Chicago Magazine use this quote in articles about the ways history determines the present. A closer look at Shakespeare’s line, however, suggests a different interpretation.  It’s spoken by Antonio, who is trying to convince Sebastian to kill the sleeping king.  In this context, the past is merely a prologue that sets the scene for a much better future – a choice, not destiny.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin, 1974. Act II, Scene I, p. 1621.

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“Always do what you are afraid to do.”

This famous assertion from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Heroism,” published in 1841, floated to the top of my mind while – of all things! – attending a technology conference. The keynote speaker, author of the upcoming book Strive: How Doing the Things Most Uncomfortable Leads to Success, made a case for embracing things that are outside of our comfort zones – especially technology. Emerson’s advocacy for facing our fears is at the heart of his transcendentalist philosophy of being independent, disregarding authority, and relying on direct experience.  It’s hard to imagine what Emerson would have made of this current application of his advice.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Herorism.” Emerson’s Essays. Harper & Row, 1951, p. 185.

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“My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion.”

That the poet Walt Whitman was a rebel who celebrated democracy, nature, love and friendship is well known.  What isn’t well known is that Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, felt inspired by Whitman. Let’s think about that. Could it be that poetry played a role in igniting World War IYes, says the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1980.  Milosz notes that Whitman was popular among Europeans in the late 19th century, which is how an American poet contributed to the outbreak of World War I.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of the Open Road.” Leaves of Grass. Doubleday, 1926, p. 131.

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“It was impossibly large and full of beauty and danger in equal parts – and we wanted it all.”

Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife describes Hemingway’s earliest years as a novelist writing in Paris after WWI from the perspective of his wife, Hadley. It’s a wonderful novel, set in one of the most dynamic literary periods, where James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway were inventing the Modernist movement in bars and cafes. McLain, an accomplished poet with an MFA from Michigan, dares to evoke Hemingway’s hypnotic, infectious cadences in prose that rises to the challenge. This book belongs to the emerging genre of “speculative literature,” which blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction.

McLain, Paula. The Paris Wife. Ballantine, 2012, 72.

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“By and large, art both instructs and entertains us.”

George Anastaplo continues “It instructs us partly by entertaining us; it entertains us partly by instructing us.  We are likely to learn from that which amuses us; we are likely to enjoy that which seems to teach us something” (1).  This collection of essays is written not by a professor of literature, but by man called “the Socrates of Chicago” who was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was fearless – when navigating B-17s during WW II, arguing in front of the Supreme Court, or writing books on a range of topics, including these essays on Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain.

Anastaplo, George. The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce. Swallow Press, 1983.

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“The world is too much with us.”

Two-hundred years ago, when William Wordsworth published the poem that begins with the line quoted above, critics were not impressed.  In fact, they ridiculed him for using the words “of the common man” instead of using a scholar’s proper poetic diction.  Wordsworth sparked a revolution. It took many years, but it eventually became widely accepted that accessible poetry can be great poetry. In 1950, the critic who wrote the introduction to this selection of poetry noted that we “more than ever” benefit from Wordsworth’s work.  Fast-forward 67 years: Could it be even more relevant than ever before? Perhaps so!

Wordsworth, William. “The World Is Too Much with Us.” William Wordsworth: Selected Poetry edited, with an introduction, by Mark Van Doren. The Modern Library, 1950, p. 536.

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“Many modern books on ‘style’ have suggested that there are only two styles: good and bad.”

This book, Clear and Simple as the Truth, takes a much different view.  The authors argue that there are many styles for writers to choose from – including contemplative, classic, romantic, plain, oratorical, practical, and diplomatic.  This book focuses primarily on the classic style – its history, conventions, philosophy, and features. An example of the classic style is “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” People who write in the classic style are interested in identifying “truths” that everyone can recognize. Conventions of this style include being focused, assured, clear, and not at all interested in discussing ambiguities.

Thomas, Franci-Noel and Mark Turner. Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 72.

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“Researchers found that students who wrote prolifically before high-stakes performances, like examinations and final papers, significantly improved their performance on their final work” (69).

Interestingly, in this study by Ramirez and Beilock (2011), as summarized by Gary R. Hafer in Embracing Writing, it didn’t matter whether students wrote about the subject matter or about their emotions and anxiety – what mattered was how frequently they wrote. Hafer makes a case for encouraging students in all disciplines to write every day for ten minutes.  This practice, he notes, always leads to greater fluidity and facility with the language; it can lead to more experimentation, reflection, planning and searching for ideas.  This aligns with new research on the advantages of frequent, short work over sporadic, lengthy sessions.

Hafer, Gary R. Embracing Writing: Ways to Teach Reluctant Writers in Any Course. Jossey-Bass. 2014.

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“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.”

The situation, Vivian Gornick explains in this book about the art of personal narrative, is the context or circumstances, while the story is “the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (13). Gornick argues that the most difficult and important work of memoirists is to understand why they are telling their story. The writer of memoir should undergo “an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet.” If they don’t, Gornick warns, they can fall into “the pit of confessionalism or therapy on the page or naked self-absorption.”  For the story to succced, the purpose must be clear.

Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001,

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“Can you tell a story that doesn’t begin, it’s just suddenly happening?”

In each of the six short stories in this collection, which won the 2015 National book Award, things suddenly happen on the first page: there are no descriptions of the setting, no background information.  Instead, the story seems to be already happening.  In an interview, author Adam Johnson said, “I just work relentlessly in scene.  I don’t believe in summary or exposition.” Fast openings can make the reader feel uncomfortable, and, in fact, many of these stories are about desperate people with unpleasant problems. Why read them? They are astonishing, perceptive and brave, by turns surprising, wondrous, comic and devastating.

Johnson, Adam. Fortune Smiles. Random House. 2015.

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