Skip to main content

Past Honors Book Labs

Fall 2018

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Dr. Jennifer Grewe

Malcolm Gladwell is the bestselling author of Tipping Point and Outliers. Blink is another bestseller that explores “how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant—in the blink of an eye—that actually aren't as simple as they seem.” The book asks a series of important questions: “Why are some people brilliant decision makers, while others are consistently inept? Why do some people follow their instincts and win, while others end up stumbling into error? How do our brains really work-in the office, in the classroom, in the kitchen, and in the bedroom? And why are the best decisions often those that are impossible to explain to others?” Discussion in this Book Lab will focus on the psychological aspects behind our decision-making behaviors, such as snap-judgment decisions and first impressions. We will discuss how examples from the book relate to our own lives and how we can work on having more positive outcomes from our decision-making.

Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography by Sara Lipton
Dr. Alexa Sand

Stereotypes have histories. Understanding those histories gives us a clearer picture of just how constraining and harmful stereotypes are, for both those stereotyped and those who perpetuate stereotypes. Negative imagery of Jewish people as hook-nosed, greedy, and curiously dressed emerged in the late Middle Ages, a product of political and religious anxieties of emergent Christian states. Historian Sara Lipton traces the formation of anti-Jewish imagery in this award-winning study. She demolishes the idea that stereotypical anti-Jewish imagery found its basis in the cultural expression of real medieval Jews. Through meticulous study of documentary and artistic evidence, she shows that the negative image of the Jew was built up from a variety of ideas about imagined alien forces, including pagan philosophers and magicians, thought to pose a threat to an equally imaginary stable, Christian social order. From this stew of fears came some of the most powerful and harmful stereotypical images in history—medieval anti-Judaism was the wellspring for Nazi propaganda against Jews, and remains a source for contemporary anti-Jewish campaigners. This book will give our Book Lab a wealth of opportunities to think through both historical and current forms of racial and ethnic prejudice. 

The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley
Dr. Chris Fawson

I believe one of my most profound insights as a scholar is that useful knowledge is rarely captured within the domain of a single academic discipline. One of my favorite quotes comes from George Leonard in Mastery: “On the level of personal experience, all of life is seamless, despite society’s untiring efforts to break it up into compartments.” With this idea as a backdrop, we will explore The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley. Ridley is an award-winning, bestselling author of books that seek to bridge the perceived gaps in knowledge and experience at the intersection of disciplines. In The Evolution of Everything, he explores a universal context for understanding the principles of “evolution”—and in the process, he weaves a narrative that includes everything from astrophysics of the cosmos to the beginning of life on Earth, as well as religion, commerce, government, and the internet. Previous Aggie readers have found Ridley’s direct writing style and scope of academic inquiry to be both provocative and insightful. Students looking for a fun romp through the issues of evolution as they appear not only in the physical and biological sciences, but also in the everyday experience of navigating the complexity of human interaction will enjoy this Honors Book Lab experience.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Dr. Susan Cogan and Dr. Ann Berghout-Austin

In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a powerful look at women’s roles and happiness in mid-twentieth century America. The book soon became a bestseller and one of the most important contemporary works on gender and feminism; it is considered the catalyst for second-wave feminism. Friedan questioned the myth of the happy housewife and acknowledged that many women, despite loving their families, felt dissatisfied and isolated by their role as homemakers. These women craved public role models and a greater sense of purpose.

Friedan herself was a major figure in modern American culture. She was a co-founder and the first president of the National Organization for Women, a charter member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, and an advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. She wrote columns for women’s magazines and authored several more books after The Feminine Mystique. One of Friedan’s friends and colleagues was Dr. Ann Berghout Austin, Executive Director of USU’s Center for Women and Gender. This Book Lab offers the opportunity to read Friedan’s book and also to hear from Dr. Austin about her personal experiences with Friedan and her memories of how The Feminine Mystique was received in Utah in the 1960s. 

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Professor John Ferguson and Dr. Shannon Peterson

Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, introduced the monomyth and mythology cycles that served as inspiration for George Lucas as he crafted Star Wars.  While this book reminds the reader that there may be nothing new under the sun, the need to retell stories in new contexts is part of what the human experience is all about. Campbell’s work in comparative mythology is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1949. This widely read book has served as muse for movies such as The Matrix, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and TV shows like Community and Lost.  This Book Lab provides an opportunity for students to examine mythology cycles in their own stories and contexts—and in broader modern society.  These moments of introspection will hopefully lead to deeper discussions of truth and meaning in our own lives.

Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore
Dr. Breanna Studenka

This book is based on a body of nutritional science that has been largely overlooked by the FDA and traditional nutritional programs. Its main tenet is that the low-fat guidelines promoted by the FDA since the 1970s are not supported by science, and are actually a huge influence on the rising levels of obesity and heart disease we’ve seen since their inception. The book will allow students interested in nutrition and biology to think about nutrition in a new way, to consider the relationship between science and government, and to examine evidence and come to thoughtful conclusions for themselves. Students will compare what they thought they knew about nutrition and what the science is now telling us, and we will discuss together why conventional wisdom about nutrition is so far from the science and what we can do as citizens to bring the two closer together.

The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart by Jan Amos
Dr. Charlie Huenemann

This novel is an allegory for the journey of life, narrated by a pilgrim who decides to survey all the walks of life before deciding upon one for his own. He meets up with Search-All, or Ubiquitous, who informs him that the world is a labyrinth, and Delusion, whose job it is to interpret the wisdom of the world. Delusion fits the pilgrim with the bridle of curiosity and the spectacles of delusion. The spectacles distort everything, but the pilgrim finds that by tilting his head up and looking under the glasses he can sneak some more accurate glances. And so off he goes, encountering the Castle of Fortune, the Avenues of Trades and of Learned Men, the Theologians, the Politicians, and so on, seeing all these people for who and what they really are. He becomes more and more dispirited—until he finally encounters the Paradise of the Heart, which teaches him to be humble, charitable, and pious, and it is there that he finds his peace. Comenius’s work does two things at once: it tells us what life was like back in 17th-century Europe, but it also forces us to think about whether the same story could be told today, or indeed in any day. It is at turns hilarious, profound, depressing, and joyous.

Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou
Dr. David Brown

What is Math? Is it invented or discovered? Who cares? Who should care?

In 1931 Kurt Gödel proved a phenomenal result that, unfortunately, not many people (let alone mathematicians) know or care about. The result, now known as “Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem,” arguably settled many questions philosophers were—and still are—puzzling over, including problems as far-reaching as “Is artificial intelligence possible?” and “Do we have free will?”

is a graphic novel that takes the reader along the path to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. The path involves many luminary human beings, mostly mathematicians, who are not well-known and who struggled with the limits of what human beings can and cannot know. Logicomix reads quickly, but cuts deeply, and it exposes the reader to secrets of Mathematics that never get discussed in math classes, despite their obvious relevance to our lives. These secrets are arguably more relevant than the standard advertisements of math’s utility for making better cell phones or aiming rockets. The story of Logicomix will take us through a forest whose trees are the aforementioned luminary people, all of whom are among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the century 1900-2000.

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Dr. Julia Gossard 

Just before dawn on July 16, 1942, the French police began “Operation Spring Breeze.”  That morning, over 13,000 Jews were forcibly removed from their homes and dragged through the streets of Paris to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, not far from the Eiffel Tower. The Vel’ d’Hiv’, as it was commonly called, was the first indoor track in France and hosted numerous sports and cultural shows. But in 1942, the Vel’ d’Hiv’ hosted a much different spectacle: the inhumane detainment of Jews before their deportation to Auschwitz. Though a work of fiction, Sarah’s Key helps inform the reader about the lesser-known atrocities committed against French Jews under Nazi occupation and the Vichy government.  Simultaneously set in July 1942 and sixty years later in July 2002, the novel alternates narratives between the lives of Sarah Starzynski, a ten-year-old Jewish girl imprisoned with her parents in the Vel’ d’Hiv’, and Julia Jarmond, an ex-patriate American journalist writing a piece on the 60th anniversary of the roundup.  In researching her article, Julia begins to discover tragic secrets about Sarah’s life that have a devastating impact on Julia’s own life 60 years later.

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Dr. Jim Evans

A statue memorializing Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed from Memphis in December 2017.  Forrest was a general for the confederate army, and a founding member of the KKK.  Why did the city of Memphis need to use a range of clever legal maneuvers to take the statue down? How did we come to honor men who committed treason against this nation to maintain slavery?
I am not a scholar of literature, history, or social policy. Like many of you, I have only a vague understanding of what it means to be of African ancestry. Many students will know more than I on most of the topics in this book, and we will address hard, uncomfortable subjects—but my experience in the American South and the current social climate convinced me to propose and lead this Book Lab.
Informed citizens need to peel back the layers of misinformation, guilt, and lies we have been told regarding our founding stories and confront one of the ugliest aspects of American history: the capture and enslavement of millions of Africans and the normalization of racist thinking in American culture. 

Summer 2018

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
Dr. Mirella Meyer-Ficca

The groundbreaking work of primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal has turned our understanding of the origin of animal and human behavior upside down. This book describes odd and complex behaviors in all kinds of animals—crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, chimpanzees—to reveal both how smart animals really are and how we have underestimated their cognitive abilities for far too long. Written in a highly entertaining way, this thought-provoking and mind-opening book explores the idea that animal minds are far more complex and intricate than has been traditionally assumed, allowing us to see the steep scientific uphill battle that initially greeted this revolutionary idea.

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
Dr. Larry Cannon

A delightful, challenging book, Gödel, Escher, Bach explores many stimulating ideas about music, art, computer science, mathematics, genetics, philosophy, language, and artificial intelligence. This Book Lab will allow us to discuss some of the most intriguing of the ideas raised by Hofstadter. Martin Gardner cheered the book in his column in Scientific American, and Hofstadter actually followed Gardner as a columnist for that magazine. Gardner’s praise is summed up in his blurb for the book: “Every few decades an unknown author brings out a book of such depth, clarity, range, wit, beauty and originality that it is recognized at once as a major literary event. [This] is such a work.”

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
Dr. Travis Dorsch

Humans are creatures of habit, and our behaviors are dictated by daily routines triggered by cues and reinforced by rewards. The Power of Habit explains how habits are formed and broken, as well as how they are leveraged in marketing, management, and social movements. In their simplest form, habits have three components: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Over time, routines become so habitual that we anticipate the reward and receive almost as much pleasure from the anticipation as from the reward itself, a phenomenon known as “craving.” The anticipation of lighting a cigarette, for example, can bring nearly as much pleasure as inhaling the first puff of smoke. Research suggests that the key to changing habits is not to avoid the cues or to change the rewards, but to change the routine that leads from cue to habit. Through compelling stories, Habit provides a roadmap to changing bad habits. The book also explains the powerful nature of groups and shared experiences by highlighting the corporate successes of Alcoa, Starbucks, Proctor & Gamble, and other companies. 

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang
Dr. Jessica Habashi

Do you long for the good old days, when mercury pills and explosive diarrhea were considered cutting-edge cures for human ailments? Or perhaps arsenic as a beauty enhancer is more your speed. In Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, physician Lydia Kang guides the reader through some of the most truly terrible ideas in the history of medicine. The cures outlined in the text are at best ineffective, at worst poisonous, and always based on an incomplete understanding of the human body. We’ll pick apart the stories and talk about why some of the “cures” are at such odds with our current understanding of human physiology and toxicology. This book will be of great interest to students of science and history, or anyone who enjoys a good laugh. Come be amazed, entertained, and disgusted, all in 352 pages. 

What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People by Joe Navarro
Professor Arron Preston

Social media communication is commonly defined as any form of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content.  However, long before Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, or even the internet, humans used other means of communication to interact and convey information.  Non-verbal communication was a basic component of the first “social network” and remains a vital element of successful interpersonal communication.  Increasing awareness of the non-verbal aspects of communication can improve the likelihood of successfully navigating our social worlds both personally and professionally.

Fall 2017

The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, Deirdre McClosky
Dr. Christopher Fawson 
Author Deirde McClosky is a prominent economic scholar and historian who started her career as Donald McClosky; many would consider her the most prominent transsexual economist in the world. Drawing upon her own life experience and meticulous scholarship, this book is, in her own words, “an apologia in the theological sense of giving reasons with room for doubt, directed to nonbelievers. It is directed toward you who are suspicious of the phrase ‘bourgeois virtues,’ pretty sure that it is a contraction in terms.” Students will find the book challenging, but upon completion of the reading and discussion experience, they will have acquired a much more nuanced appreciation for the notion of “virtuous capitalism.” I have used this book in previous book-club discussions with students (Buehler Leadership Scholars), and it has invariably been a transformational experience for students who are willing to explore serious historical and philosophical arguments surrounding the notion of “bourgeois virtue.”

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

Dr. Ryan Seedall
Just Mercy is a true story written by a man who spent years defending people on death row. Stevenson analyzes racial and economic injustice in a very thought-provoking way. Something that stands out to me about this book is that it has received 4.8/5 stars on Amazon from over 2,200 reviewers. I believe the book will really spark an interesting discussion that has relevance for today regarding diversity, privilege, marginalization, and how to evaluate not only individual, but also structural/organizational oppression.

Like Water for Chocolate
, Laura Esquivel

Professor Rebecca Charlton 
Like Water for Chocolate spent two years on bestseller lists in Mexico and the United States. The intricate weaving together of food and fiction beckons the reader to ponder the pleasures engaged and denied in a world of increasing individualism that at times in conflicts with the constructs of culture. This Book Lab will discuss the societal, community, and nutrition-related themes of the novel in a place where all the best conversations are had: the kitchen. Come prepared to sample foods inspired by the novel while we discuss the place of food and culture in our families, communities, and individual lives.

March, Books 1, 2, and 3
, John Lewis

Dr. Steve Shively 
The March trilogy, presented in graphic book format, is an autobiographical account of civil rights leader John Lewis’s remarkable life, with a focus on his political activism. Lewis is one of the few remaining giants of the Civil Rights era. He participated in lunch-counter protests, the march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, and many other iconic moments in the struggle for equal rights; the youngest person on the program when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, he is the last surviving speaker from that day, and he continues to be an active and newsworthy leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. March presents Lewis’s life story from his childhood in a family of sharecroppers to his presence at the inauguration of Barak Obama. Historic events come to life through his storytelling and the art of Eisner Award-winning artist Nate Powell. March has been a huge bestseller and has won numerous awards; the series brings new life to some of the most profound moments in American history through Lewis’s inspiring voice and Powell’s dramatic visual art. March will stimulate fascinating discussions for students interested in history, literature, art, education, sociology, politics, communication, and more.

The North Water
, Ian McGuire

Dr. Laura Gelfand and Dr. Paul Crumbley
With astonishingly raw prose, McGuire spins a fast-paced tale of nautical adventure, mysticism, and survival that nods toward the seafaring works of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad and incorporates the gritty realism of Cormac McCarthy—while still remaining entirely original itself. Set in 1857 on a British whaling ship bound for the Arctic, this work of historical suspense fiction introduces a cast of unforgettable characters whose behavior may not be to everyone’s taste (it includes vivid descriptions of violence involving people and animals), yet a leap into the book’s icy waters will take willing readers on a compelling journey. Thanks to quality of the writing, the intensity of the narrative, and the author’s nuanced play between the historical and the metaphysical, The North Water lends itself to a broad range of discussions on humanistic topics at the same time as it invites analysis of literary craft. Discussions might touch on topics as diverse as the foundations of human motivation, the importance of spiritual self-discovery, the impact of human culture on the natural environment, and the role of the novel in the modern world.

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity
, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Dr. Sara Bakker 
Written by two Pulitzer-prize winning journalists, A Path Appears addresses poverty and social change in contemporary global society. Using an engaging style that interweaves thorough research with illustrative personal stories, the authors identify pressing, persistent problems at home and abroad – and proven, creative strategies for combating them. Our discussions will focus on misperceptions of poverty and the role of journalists in covering ongoing, yet relatively unchanging situations, topics that are particularly timely, given the wealth of current American leadership and the maligned status of journalists in shaping or manipulating our understanding of the world. We will also identify who might actually benefit from maintaining the status quo and ask whether we—as a society or as individuals—have a moral responsibility to intervene. This Book Lab will help you understand how poverty shapes people’s lives and how you might work for social change.

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1
, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Dr. Brian McCuskey
This Book Lab will transport us to Baker Street: we will read and discuss the original Sherlock Holmes stories, from his introduction in A Study in Scarlet (1887), to his next investigation in The Sign of Four (1890), and then to his heavy caseload in the Adventures (1892) and the Memoirs (1894). Holmes claims to be the first “scientific detective,” and Watson calls him “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” Does he deserve his reputation as a logical genius? To answer that question, we will interview both the author who created him, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the actors who have played him, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Sports Gene
David Epstein
Dr. Matthew Vierimaa
Are elite athletes born or made? Is it possible for anyone to become an expert in a sport simply by putting in the so-called requisite 10,000 hours? Are certain athletes blessed with traits that predispose them to reach the highest levels of performance? In The Sports Gene, David Epstein provides an in-depth examination of elite athleticism through the lens of science. Deftly tackling the nature vs. nurture debate in the context of elite sport, The Sports Gene integrates cutting-edge research on topics such as genetics, race, physiology, and psychology. Epstein supplements this empirical evidence with fascinating anecdotes and interviews with athletes from around the world on both sides of the nature-nurture argument. Students with an interest in sport and/or human performance will enjoy this compelling, thought-provoking book on the differential impacts of genetics, practice, and psychosocial factors on athletic performance.

Stories of Your Life and Others
, Ted Chiang

Dr. John McLaughlin
In a collection of essays that Junot Díaz has called “shining, haunting, mind-blowing,” Ted Chiang has crafted a set of well-conceived thought experiments that create alternate worlds only slightly different from our own. The recent feature film Arrival is based on the essay that gives the collection its title. As a linguist myself, I came to the book because the film is one of the rare moments when a linguist is the hero of the story. Chiang creates believable alternate realities to examine such questions as the relation of automation and human labor, the contradiction between a just God and the capriciousness of circumstance, the interaction of foreknowledge and human choice, the nature of obsession, and the relation between mandatory and voluntary action. During the four weeks of this Book Lab, we will discuss four of the essays that touch upon some of these different questions of our world. 

Summer 2017

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles Mann
Dr. Lawrence Culver 
We think of globalization as a modern phenomenon. Yet globalization began 525 years ago, when Cristobal Colon unwittingly connected Europe, Asia, and Africa with the Americas. The vast transfer of people, plants, animals, goods, and diseases initiated in 1492, which historians call the Colombian Exchange, began an epoch of globalization that has shaped almost every facet of the modern world, from the food we eat to the plants and animals that surround us, from human demography to the national and imperial power. Written for a general audience, 1493 give allow students in this Honors Book Lab the opportunity to learn about and discuss the history of globalization, including environmental history, agricultural and food history, the history of disease, economic history, and the historical forces that shaped the Americas and the future United States. We will see, for example, how the Andean potato became a global food staple, but caused collapse in China and a terrible famine in Ireland, and how the lowly mosquito arguably shaped history more than any human ever did. In short, we will talk about how the modern world came to be. 

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live
, Marlene Zuk

Dr. Carrie Durward 
Is it healthier to eat the same foods as your Paleolithic ancestors did? Should you be running barefoot because that is how your foot evolved to function? In Paleofantasy, biologist Marlene Zuk does an excellent job of making cutting-edge scientific research understandable and interesting. She breaks down the argument that our bodies and brains are at odds with modern life in the context of several modern trends: the Paleo Diet, barefoot running, attachment parenting, and more. Most importantly, she clarifies several common misconceptions about evolution, using fascinating research findings to illustrate her points. This Book Lab will explore a complex and often misunderstood topic by discussing a book that makes these complicated ideas easy to understand and interesting.

Thinking Fast and Slow
, Daniel Kahneman

Dr. Travis Dorsch 
Written by Nobel laureate Daniel KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow suggests that human thinking is flawed – not by the corrupting influence of emotion, but by the imperfect machinery of our minds themselves. According to Kahneman, humans have two main ways of reasoning about the world: a slow, deliberate, analytical, and effortful system and a fast, automatic, intuitive and largely unconscious one. While the former allows us successfully to navigate a college exam or parallel park a large vehicle, the latter allows us to infer emotion in the voice of a conversational partner or root for our favorite sport team. Although the first system is more deliberate and rational than the second, it is also lazy and tires easily; humans thus often fail to slow down and analyze things because accepting the easy but unreliable story proposed by the second system is simply easier. This Book Lab will discuss Kahneman’s idea that this path of least resistance is the source of many of the biases that pervert our thinking: we jump to intuitive conclusions, he argues, based on easy but imperfect “heuristics,” often without bothering to consider whether our conclusions are logical.

Spring 2017

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
, Barbara Kingsolver

Professor Rebecca Charlton
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver embarks on an epic journey to live an American idyllic life. She and her family vow to eat only locally grown foods and to produce most of their food on their own. Kingsolver tells of the clash between our modern/industrialized culture and the desire for simpler times and things. The book explores human themes as well as the many nutrition and sustainability questions raised by her family’s choices. The book can be used as a stepping stone to conversations about sustainability, GMO foods, myths about food and farming, and cultural expectations for food, flavor, taste, and convenience. These conversations can suggest challenges and solutions for such global issues as malnutrition, food insecurity, food as a tool of warfare, feasibility of environmental change, and the obesity epidemic. Although food is a relatively simple concept and seems ubiquitous in the industrialized world, the experience of this family highlights the real struggle faced once upon a time before food became big business. Kingsolver will delight students with her exquisite and lyrical style and encourage them to think about issues well beyond the local grocery store.

, Translated by Seamus Heaney

Dr. Christine Cooper-Rompato
Beowulf is a fantastic epic poem originally composed in Old English somewhere between 800 and 1000 CE. It was the inspiration for much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and students may know the poem from a 2007 film starring Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s (hideous? sexy?) mother. They will no doubt come to the poem with some expectations about its content and about the culture that created it, which will make for productive conversation. At a deeper level of reading, the poem offers a stern critique of Anglo-Scandinavian cultural practices. Moreover, it even depicts the Christian apocalyptic ending of the world. In my experience, students love parsing out the Christian allegorical aspects of the poem as well as thinking about the historical context that fostered its creation — a time with Viking descendants ruled eastern England.

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Dr. Christy Glass
A powerful essay on the meaning of race, Between the World and Me is an intimate letter from a father to his adolescent son about the experience of being a black man in America today. The 2015 National Book Award winner, the book challenges taken-for-granted notions of “blackness” and “whiteness” and provides a rich and provocative alternative perspective on contemporary American society. Toni Morrison called the book “required reading,” and the New York Observer called Coates “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States.” For me, the book is a moving and intimate revelation of the human experience that challenged me to rethink some of my most basic assumptions about politics, the economy, and society.

Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer
Pete Marra and Chris Santella
Dr. Kim Sullivan
Are you a cat owner, bird watcher or nature enthusiast? Do you see the domestic cat as a sweet, cuddly pet or an incredibly successful invasive killer? Are trap-neuter-release programs good for wildlife, cats, and human health? Free-ranging domestic cats kill as many as four billion birds in the United State each year and are a leading cause of rabies infections among humans. Pete Marra and Chris Santella address the complex global problem of free-ranging cats in Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer in a thoughtful and engaging manner. The authors trace the history of cat domestication and the role of cats in wildlife extinctions and disease transmission; they then propose solutions that address the needs of both wildlife and pet owners. I selected this book to engage students in thoughtful discussion of the controversial subject of free-ranging cats.

Lean In
, Sheryl Sandberg

Dr. Susan Cogan
A self-described nerdy bookish type while growing up, Sheryl Sandberg is now one of the top people at Facebook. Her book about women and leadership, Lean In, has attracted praise and criticism, sometimes even vigorous loathing. This Book Lab offers the opportunity to read and talk about Sandberg’s ideas about women and leadership — even women and power. What makes her ideas attractive to some people and the subject of scorn to others? What makes her ideas so controversial? Regardless of whether we like her or approve of her message, are there parts of her message that can be useful to apply in our own lives? This Lab will provide a safe space in which to explore these kinds of questions and to understand the complex issues related to women, gender, the workforce, and women’s roles in modern American society. This Book Lab is mentored by faculty members involved with establishing a Women’s Leadership Initiative at USU. We encourage involvement of women and men, whether you see yourself as a leader, want to know what leadership is, or just want to understand what “leaning in” means.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life
, Charles Darwin

Dr. Nat Frazer
Whether you “believe” in evolution or not, it’s important to know exactly what it is that you do or don’t “believe.” Almost everyone has an opinion of Darwin’s Origin of Species, but very few of them (including biologists!) have ever read it to see what he had to say. People often say that undergraduates can’t read and understand Darwin because of his nineteenth-century writing style. However, I successfully read the book with groups of freshmen for eight years in Georgia. As one of the fundamental books of modern biology, ecology, evolution, and biodiversity, it contains some amazing ideas. I once read this book with a class of Ecology grad students, and every one of them was amazed that Darwin had anticipated their Ph.D. research over a hundred years before they had proposed their dissertation topics! In fact, he conducted experiments that had bearing on the very questions they planned to study. So if you want to know what it is that you do or don’t “believe” in, I invite you to visit the source with me.

, Cheryl Strayed

Dr. Jennifer Sinor
In the spring of 2017, author Cheryl Strayed will be coming to campus. Students will have the opportunity to hear her talk about the importance of story in the world today. Strayed’s work, her memoir Wild in particular, demonstrates the power of narrative nonfiction to capture those moments in our lives when our humanity is most revealed. A story of healing, empowerment, and growth, Wild is one of those books that all students should read. It tells us how to live, how to write, how to choose wisely. Not always pretty, often harrowing, Wild challenges us to think beyond right and wrong, good and bad, empty and whole. I hope you will gather with me around such a gift.

Fall 2016

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 
and Through The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Dr. Brian McCuskey
We will discuss the following important questions that every college student must answer: “What am I to do?” “How am I to get in?” “Which way ought I to go from here?” “What is the fun?” “What happens when you come to the beginning again?” “Who in the world am I?” “Who are you?” “What are you?” “What sort of people live about here?” “How can you learn lessons in here?” “Who is to give the prizes?” “And now which is which?” “Why not?” “How do you know I’m mad?” “How do you know that you’re mad?” “Thinking again?” “Do cats eat bats?” “Do bats eat cats?” “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” Please note: this Book Lab will conclude with a field trip.

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World
, Adrienne Mayor
Dr. Frances Titchener
Ancient historians make use of all kinds of sources to construct a narrative of the past, and therefore, that narrative is full of legends about titans, giants, hybrid monsters and the like. Amazons were the subject of numerous vase paintings and featured prominently in ancient mythology. As female warriors, they were both fascinating and frightening. It is difficult to see them through the mist of time and this mirage of reputation. Multiple sources are in play: archaeological, literary, epigraphical.

“But just who were these bold barbarian archers on horseback who gloried in fighting, hunting, and sexual freedom? Were Amazons real? In this deeply researched, wide-ranging, and lavishly illustrated book, National Book Award finalist Adrienne Mayor presents the Amazons as they have never been seen before. This is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in myth and history across the ancient world, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Great Wall of China.” That’s what Princeton University Press has to say about the goal of the book, and those are the questions we’ll be focusing on as well. Chapter titles like “Breasts: one or two?” “Drugs, Dance, and Music”, and “Who Invented Trousers?” promise lots of material for lively discussion.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
, Sherman Alexie
Dr. Keri Holt and Dr. Steve Shively
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (2007), provides a realistic and humorous look at the troubled lives of reservation Indians while offering hope, at least for individuals. Alexie's work has transformed the way that people think of Native Americans and Native American writing. This novel challenges stereotypes and assumptions, encouraging readers to see Native American people and culture as not always so "different" as people may think. The narrator, a mildly fictionalized version of a teen-aged Alexie, pulls readers into the story of his fears, tragedies, and successes. The book explores such diverse topics as bullying, alcohol abuse, the inspiration of basketball, and the importance of education. Many USU students and faculty enjoyed Alexie's talk on campus in 2015. Among its many honors, this book won a National Book Award for Young People's Literature and was named to the Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults by YALSA. It is, nevertheless, often challenged in schools for its subject matter. The book appeals to young readers but also to anyone concerned about matters of diversity and growing up, including prospective teachers, sociologists, creative writers, literature enthusiasts, and anyone who enjoys a good story.

Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, 
Aubrey Daniels
Dr. Tyra Sellers
Most of us, at some point in our lives, will be responsible for the teaching/training and supervision of others. However, most of us never receive good training on how to be a great supervisor. In fact, we often base our behavior on examples from ghosts of supervisors past, many of whom were likely to have been mediocre-to-poor models. In this book, Aubrey Daniels clearly describes the basics of human behavior and evidence-based strategies for motivating people to do their best. The information and practices described in this book are applicable not only to the supervisor-supervisee relationship, but also more generally to any human-human interaction in which you want to motivate others to do their best. This is really a guidebook on how to be an effective person in our complicated lives of endless human interactions. Discussions will center on ethics, obtaining a deeper understanding of the information presented, and how to apply the information to real-world situations. I only wish this book had been available when I was an undergraduate; then I would not have had to learn by making so many mistakes!

The Hare with Amber Eyes
, Edmund de Waal
Dr. Laura Gelfand
This beautifully written memoir and genealogical study of the author’s family centers on de Waal’s exploration of the provenance of a collection of netsuke (small, Japanese ivory carvings of animals and playful imagery) that he inherited. The author’s curiosity about these intimately scaled objects — and his ancestors who held them in their hands before passing them on to him — is the catalyst for his investigation. The book provides readers with an overview of twentieth-century European and Japanese history and reveals the richness of the information that such seemingly simple objects may provide about our world and our history. As de Waal traces these small sculptures from Paris to Vienna, through World War II, to their eventual return to his family and then to Japan, he vividly conveys the pleasure that results from primary research and the excitement that can be found in the process of discovery. While it will appeal to art historians for obvious reasons, it will also be of interest to students from a wide range of disciplines, including English and History.

, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou
Dr. David Brown
What is Math? Is it invented or discovered? Who cares? Who should care?

In 1931 Kurt Gödel proved a phenomenal result that, unfortunately, not many people (let alone mathematicians) know or care about, even if they are aware of it. The result, now known as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, arguably settled many questions philosophers were — and still are — puzzling over, including problems involving ethics. Some have argued that Gödel’s Theorem even settles questions as far-reaching as “Is artificial intelligence possible?” and “Do we have free will?

Logicomix is a graphic novel that takes the reader along the path to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. The path involves many luminary human beings, mostly mathematicians who are unfortunately not well-known and who struggled with the limits of what human beings can and cannot know. Logicomix reads quickly, but cuts deeply, and exposes the reader to secrets of Mathematics that never get discussed in Math classes, despite their obvious relevance to our lives. These secrets are arguably more relevant than the standard advertisements of Math’s utility for making better cell phones or aiming rockets.

The story of Logicomix will take us through a forest whose trees are the aforementioned luminary people, all of whom are among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the century 1900-2000.

Memory Theater
, Simon Critchley
Dr. Charlie Huenemann
Simon Critchley is a philosopher who writes engaging books for popular audiences, often on deep issues like meaning and absurdity, but always with both humor and feeling. Memory Theater is a novel, but it’s also an autobiography and an exploration of some of the weird ways humans have looked at memory. As one reviewer writes, the book is “a strange, affecting and stimulating book that's both a philosophical history and a personal memoir. Sifting through the archives of a dead friend, Critchley takes a fascinating journey through the philosophy and history of memory, and the technologies of remembering dreamed up by thinkers since classical times.” I think students will enjoy the task of seeing lives (ours and Critchley’s) through these lenses.

Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Services in Social-Ecological Systems
, Edited by Reinette Biggs, Maja Schlüter, and Michael L. Schoon
Dr. Jacopo Baggio
As both societies and the world in which we live face increasingly rapid changes, resilience has become a fundamental “attribute” of social-ecological systems. This book is based on contributions from leaders in the field, and each chapter dwells on the importance of specific “principles” that we need to take into account for building resilience such as: maintaining diversity and redundancy, managing connectivity, encouraging learning, broadening participation, and promoting polycentric governance. The authors assess evidence for each principle, discuss their practical applications, and outline further research needs. The book is a great starting point to thinking in a systematic way about how to tackle problems relating to the broader field of sustainability science, environmental management, and governance.

The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience and the Life Well Lived
, Peter C. Whybrow
Dr. Peter McNamara
This book ranges across neuroscience, evolution, economics, psychology, public policy, and moral philosophy.  Whybrow argues that our brains have evolved for life in an earlier human epoch.  As a result, the habits we acquired over that long evolutionary process are unsuited to our own times.  The book proposes a new model for life that draws heavily on the moral philosophy of Adam Smith — the eighteenth-century Scottish pioneer in moral philosophy and economics — and contemporary neuroscience.  Really!  The author is director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.  The book should appeal to students interested in stepping outside conventional academic boundaries. 

Summer 2016

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,
Carl Safina
Dr. Robert Schmidt
Why are humans different from other vertebrate animals? Is it because we possess emotions? Do we love our kids, and mourn the passing of our relatives, unlike all other animals? Is it because we have a sense of the past and the future? In Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, ecologist Carl Safina challenges the reader to consider that other animals think and feel, and we should reevaluate our relationship with animals based on this understanding.

“Weaving decades of observations of actual families of free-living creatures with new discoveries about brain functioning, Carl Safina’s narrative breaches many commonly held boundaries between humans and other animals. In Beyond Words, readers travel the wilds of Africa to visit some of the last great elephant gatherings, then follow wolves of Yellowstone National Park as they sort out the aftermath of their personal tragedy, then plunge into the astonishingly peaceful society of killer whales living in waters of the Pacific Northwest. We spend quality time, too, with dogs and falcons and ravens; and consider how the human mind originated.” [

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
, Steven Johnson
Dr. Jessica Habashi
A deadly disease brings devastation to a crowded, sprawling city. The cause is a mystery, and fear and superstition take hold of the city’s residents. A lone physician works to uncover the source of the illness and stop its spread, despite resistance from city and medical officials. It’s a story that could be set in any major city of the world in the present day; however, this the story of a cholera outbreak that swept through London in 1854, which was attributed to miasmas, or bad smells in the air. Author Steven Johnson chronicles the efforts of physician John Snow to convince public officials that contaminated water was the real source of the outbreak. The story, which reads in part like a social history and in part like a detective novel, is informative and easy to understand. It’s also sure to satisfy anyone interested in history or medicine. We will discuss the lack of understanding of infectious diseases at the time, and how John Snow’s work helped lay the foundation for modern population medicine — what we now call epidemiology.

The Tempest
, William Shakespeare
Dr. Rob Behunin
Often called his tour de force, Shakespeare’s The Tempest has much to offer the modern reader in terms of insights into Renaissance nobility. Typically classified as one his late romances, the play exhibits elements of history, tragedy, and comedy. It is also laced with a variety of themes — revenge, redemption, reconciliation, manipulation — which Shakespeare casts in a context of wonder.

The discussion of The Tempest will focus on how the play, with all of its complexities, can be read as part of “courtesy book” tradition. We will explore how Shakespeare, via the character Prospero, attempts to instruct the nobility and prepare Ferdinand and Miranda to assume their roles as future regents.