Last year the Office of Academic Resources launched Reading Rainbow, a recurring end-of-semester event at which Haverford community members share book recommendations. Students don’t just leave the gathering with a list of titles to check out over their impending vacations, but with actual, physical books themselves. (Free copies of all the suggested titles are available and given out to those in attendance.)
This semester’s event, which was organized by Vanessa Morales ’19 and Tania Ortega ’19, featured suggestions, courtesy of seven staff and faculty members, made in response to the prompt: “What book helped you navigate an ethical dilemma and led to a personal action or insight?” So if you’re looking for additions to a holiday wishlist, something to read during some well-deserved downtime this season, or some advice before a trip to the bookstore or library, the following suggestions make for a thoughtful and enlightening syllabus.
Whistling Vivaldi was written by Claude Steele, a social psychologist who invented and researched the notion of “stereotype threat.” The book, while nonfiction, reads like a detective novel, and we follow along the twists and turns in Steele’s research as he teases out more and more evidence for this subtle, but impactful stressor that has the potential to affect anyone who is in a situation where they are in the minority. As a white male, who seldom finds himself in the minority, the research presented in this book is convincing, as well as upsetting, and gave me new insights into the inner struggles that many of my students experience.
I now know that many people experience some form of stereotype threat, and that the weight of this extra psychological pressure can have negative effects on performance and self-image. I have found it empowering to learn more about the triggers, so that as an educator I can be on the lookout for them in my own work. I think that anyone who has been on the sending or receiving end of these stressors can also benefit from reading the book by coming to an understanding of their subtle and pernicious consequences.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is a beautiful statement about something ugly: illness, cruelty, racism, the encroaching soul suck of technology and American nationalism in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11. This book weaves surprising elements into poetry. I love it for its own merits, but love it even more fervently in light of the most recent presidential election which illustrated that a book about the aftermath of September 11, 2001 is a book about today, the aftermath of November 8, 2016.
This book is essentially about the responsibility that we bear as Americans, or anyone whose birthplace is a privilege and a curse. It’s also about how poetry, art and philosophy are necessary for our survival.
Being Mortal questions the well-intended but overly-medicalized framework of old age and mortality. Through personal narrative and professional expertise, Gawande challenges on us to reconsider the importance of our deaths and the meaning-making of our lives, particularly in the final stages of that life. He calls upon the medical profession and society at large to take a more holistic approach to the end of life. He argues that at this point of one’s life more than ever, the agency and personhood of the individual must be protected, celebrated and honored. By shifting from a medical paradigm to a holistic personal paradigm we can ensure that what matters most at the end is where we place our effort.
Simply, and most personally, the book helps us confront a range of difficult choices and ideas surrounding our own deaths or the death of our loved ones. The book gives the reader the data and the space to think through what it means to be human and mortal at once. It asks us to stay focused on what is meaningful to the dying person, appreciating that the answer to that question is complicated, personal, varied, and, unfortunately, often unasked.
More broadly, demographic changes, coupled with improvements in medical technology and drug therapies, mean that we are seeing, and will continue to see, an increase in older populations. How do we change the cultural paradigm so that personal agency and meaning-making are supported for aging citizens? How do we change societal structures that currently take us in well-intended but less successful, and, often, empty directions? For those not confronting mortality directly, the book is valuable in that it offers the reader the space for a thoughtful consideration of these societal issues and encourages broad-based thinking.
I chose Giovanni’s Room because it related to my “ethical situation” at hand: do I live authentically and honestly with those around me, or do I continue feeling lonely and shameful over something I have no control over? This, then, turned into a questions of, how is my lack of visibility preventing the growth and normalcy of others like me who also feel a lack of support? The book was interesting for me to read, because while I was reading this in 2011, I was actually in a dead-end relationship in Paris, and in many ways the setting mimicked my own existence at the time. I was reading about a man who was suffering the consequences of being unable to accept himself, and yet this very novel had been written by a black, gay author who was so incredibly raw and honest about what he wanted to write, especially considering the time period. The contrast between the author and the protagonist is overwhelming, and yet I empathized with them both. This book, in the darkest of times, gave me enough insight to make brave and thoughtful decisions regarding my own visibility, value, and acceptance.
I think anyone struggling with how to be visible, or with shame concerning their visibility (or lack thereof) can find some solace in this novel. Sometimes, in order to find the courage, you need to witness the painful process of self-acceptance—something profound, powerful, and often beautifully traumatic. It’s a process I’ll never forget, and it was a catalyst for finding bravery even in the most unsure of spaces.
I selected La noche the Tlatelolco (1971) and Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt (2009) because both provide a glimpse of social movements in Mexico. While La noche de Tlatelolco addresses the student movement of 1968 and its brutal repression that started a period of uncovered state violence against civilians, Mexico Unconquered provides criticism of narratives that have been assumed as an explanation for “endemic underdevelopment” in Mexico. Both readings will not help to navigate on an ethical dilemma, but certainly they will shed light upon social justice, inequality and democratic rights, issues that nowadays are relevant in these post-electoral challenging times.
I chose When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times because it was a book that got me through a really difficult time in my life. I had just ended an emotionally abusive relationship and also had just started yoga for the first time. The combination of the two helped me see the ways that I had power and agency when I felt so powerless and unloveable. It taught me that instead of running away from the things that were hard, scary, or overwhelming, I should move closer to them. It is in that closeness that you learn lessons that were meant for you to grow from. You also find a new appreciation for the things you already have in life. It taught me to be present with everything I experience, to fully feel subtleties of life.
The book describes how to create a meditation practice. And how that practice can be integrated into one’s everyday life. That practice helped me really start to peel away the layers of the problems and challenges I faced. I could start to recognize the root causes of them. And it taught me skills to be able to create change in ways I can, or let go of things that I couldn’t control. That helped me feel more present, more hopeful and more freedom in my everyday life, regardless of what was happening.
The Dive from Clausen’s Pier is about a young women, Carrie, who is engaged to be married, but isn’t sure it is going to work out and hasn’t found the way to tell her fiancé, Mike, yet. Before she can, [the couple] goes on an expedition to a local swimming hole and Mike, in an effort to try and impress Carrie, because he can sense her pulling away, and goaded on by their friends, jumps off the pier, breaks his neck, and becomes a paraplegic.
Packer describes the dilemmas Carrie goes through: What does she owes to this person who has been so important to her? What are the expectations that he has and she has and his family has [of how she will behave]? As, at one point in the book, Carrie says, “How much do we owe the people that we love?” Are there circumstances that could change that? Packer describes the conflicts and emotions really well, and I found myself wondering along with her, “What would I have done in this situation, knowing that my life would be very different?” Because of your past history, because of you have strong feelings, because you might have been a part of the reason for the event, what would you do?
At Haverford, the students make such close friendships and rely on each other so much—that’s one of the wonderful things about working here, seeing how the students all care for each other—and in the Dean’s Office we see students struggle with what they owe each other in circumstances that are much less dramatic as those outlined in the book. I’m not sure the book provides solutions, but it helps you think through what you need to do for yourself, how you can help others, and to what extent you take into account what others think it means to be a friend.
Photos by Lily Xu ’19