2020 Common Read
The University of Texas at Tyler
Each year the University of Texas at Tyler selects a text to distribute to all of our incoming first-year students. This “freshman book” program has brought award-winning scientists, journalists, and novelists to our university, to inspire and encourage our students, faculty, and staff to explore the world and value the life of the mind.
2020 – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain
In Think Like a Freak, the best-selling authors of Freakonomics turn from theory to practice, offering readers the tools to apply economic thinking in the real world. Through engaging and often amusing scenarios and stories, ranging from competitive eating contests to sudden-death kicks in soccer, Levitt and Dubner encourage readers to rethink how they make decisions. To think like a Freak, they suggest:
- Learning to say “I don’t know”—for until you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to.
- Thinking like a child—because you’ll come up with better ideas and ask better questions.
- Taking a master class in incentives—because for better or worse, incentives rule our world.
- Learning to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded—because being right is rarely enough to carry the day.
- Learning to appreciate the upside of quitting—because you can’t solve tomorrow’s problem if you aren’t willing to abandon today’s dud.
Join us via Zoom at 6:00 pm on Wednesday, September 16, for a discussion of Think Like a Freak by noted economist Dirk Mateer. Dr. Mateer is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Arizona and the author of Economics in the Movies (2005), Essentials of Economics (2015), and Principles of Economics (2020). His website dirkmateer.com houses over 500 media assets that relate economics to popular culture. Dirk is also an award-winning instructor, featured in the "Great Teachers in Economics" series, as well as the inaugural winner of the Economic Communicator Contest. While he was at Penn State, he received the George W. Atherton Award, the university’s highest teaching award, and was voted the best overall teacher in the Smeal College of Business by the readers of Critique Magazine. Now at the University of Arizona, he received the best large class lecture award in the Eller College of Management and the University’s Koffler Teaching Prize, a quadrennial award for his contributions in economic education.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for Zoom information for the event. We hope to see you there!
Earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes–they stem from the same forces that give our planet life. Earthquakes give us natural springs; volcanoes produce fertile soil. It is only when these forces exceed our ability to withstand them that they become disasters. Together they have shaped our cities and their architecture; elevated leaders and toppled governments; influenced the way we think, feel, fight, unite, and pray. The history of natural disasters is a history of ourselves.
In The Big Ones, leading seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones offers a bracing look at some of the world’s greatest natural disasters, whose reverberations we continue to feel today. At Pompeii, Jones explores how a volcanic eruption in the first century AD challenged prevailing views of religion. She examines the California floods of 1862 and the limits of human memory. And she probes more recent events–such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and the American hurricanes of 2017–to illustrate the potential for globalization to humanize and heal.
With population in hazardous regions growing and temperatures around the world rising, the impacts of natural disasters are greater than ever before. The Big Ones is more than just a work of history or science; it is a call to action. Natural hazards are inevitable; human catastrophes are not. With this energizing and exhaustively researched book, Dr. Jones offers a look at our past, readying us to face down the Big Ones in our future.
Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag.” In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.
Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when Tara’s older brother became violent.
Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
What is America's largest export, most prodigious product and greatest legacy -- the biggest thing we make? Our trash. Each of us is on track to toss 102 tons of garbage in a lifetime, 7.1 pounds a day, every day. We roll to the curb our collective body weight each year -- eighteen times over. Our disposable plastic alone outweighs the entire U.S. Navy -- and it costs us hundreds of billions of dollars.
But there's good news, too: there are families, companies and whole communities who are finding a way back from waste, and profitting in the process. Through a compellingly human, at times absurdly humorous trash travelogue, Garbology reveals how government cooks the books to conceal the severity of our trashy ways, how the consumer economy is hijacked to encourage our costly love affair with waste, and how a new generation of waste-weary men and women are just saying no—and finding that our biggest roadblock to restoring prosperity and our planet just might be our trash cans.
2016 – Norman Rosenthal, The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections
Adversity is an irreducible fact of life. Although we can and should learn from all experiences, both positive and negative, bestselling author Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, believes that adversity is by far the best teacher most of us will ever encounter.
Whether the adversity one experiences is the result of poor decision-making, a desire to test one’s mettle, or plain bad luck, Rosenthal believes life’s most important lessons—from the value of family to the importance of occasionally cutting corners—can be best learned from it.
Running counter to society’s current prevailing message that “excellence” must always be aspired to, and failure or mistakes of any sort are to be avoided at all costs, Rosenthal shows that engaging with our own failures and defeats is one of the only ways we are able to live authentic and meaningful lives, and that each different type of adversity carries its own challenges and has the potential to yield its own form of wisdom.
Using stories from his own life—including his childhood in apartheid-era South Africa, his years after suffering a violent attack from a stranger, and his career as a psychiatrist—as well as case studies and discussions with well-known figures like Viktor Frankl and David Lynch, Rosenthal shows that true innovation, emotional resilience, wisdom, and dignity can only come from confronting and understanding the adversity we have experienced. Even when life is hardest, there are meanings to be found, riches to be harvested, and gifts that can last a lifetime.
Rosenthal illustrates his message through a series of compact, memorable chapters, each one drawn from episodes in the lives of his patients, colleagues, or himself, and concluded with a take-away maxim on the lesson learned.
2015 – Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide*
From two of our most fiercely moral voices, a passionate call to arms against our
era’s most pervasive human rights violation: theoppression of women and girls in the
With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Drawing on the breadth of their combined reporting experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope.
They show how a little help can transform the lives of women and girls abroad. That Cambodian girl eventually escaped from her brothel and, with assistance from an aid group, built a thriving retail business that supports her family. The Ethiopian woman had her injuries repaired and in time became a surgeon. A Zimbabwean mother of five, counseled to return to school, earned her doctorate and became an expert on AIDS.
Through these stories, Kristof and WuDunn help us see that the key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential. They make clear how so many people have helped to do just that, and how we can each do our part. Throughout much of the world, the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population. Countries such as China have prospered precisely because they emancipated women and brought them into the formal economy. Unleashing that process globally is not only the right thing to do; it’s also the best strategy for fighting poverty. Deeply felt, pragmatic, and inspirational, Half the Sky is essential reading for every global citizen.
2014 – Rebekah Nathan, My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student*
After more than fifteen years of teaching, Rebekah Nathan, a professor of anthropology at a large state university, realized that she no longer understood the behavior and attitudes of her students. Fewer and fewer participated in class discussion, tackled theassigned reading, or came to discuss problems during office hours. And she realized from conversations with her colleagues that they, too, were perplexed: Why were students today so different and so hard to teach? Were they, in fact, more likely to cheat, ruder, and less motivated? Did they care at all about their education, besides their grades?
Nathan decided to put her wealth of experience in overseas ethnographic fieldwork to use closer to home and apply to her own university. Accepted on the strength of her high school transcript, she took a sabbatical and enrolled as a freshman for the academic year. She immersed herself in student life, moving into the dorms and taking on a full course load. She ate in the student cafeteria, joined student clubs, and played regular pick-up games of volleyball and tag football (sports at which the athletic fifty-something-year-old could hold her own). Nathan had resolved that, if asked, she would not lie about her identity; she found that her classmates, if they were curious about why she was attending college at her age, never questioned her about her personal life.
Based on her interviews and conversations with fellow classmates, her interactions with professors and with other university employees and offices, and her careful day-to-day observations, My Freshman Year provides a compelling account of college life that should be read by students, parents, professors, university administrators, and anyone else concerned about the state of higher education in America today. Placing her own experiences and those of her classmates into a broader context drawn from national surveys of college life, Nathan finds that today's students face new challenges to which academic institutions have not adapted. At the end of her freshman year, she has an affection and respect for students as a whole that she had previously reserved only for certain individuals. Being a student, she discovers, is hard work. But she also identifies fundamental misperceptions, misunderstandings, and mistakes on both sides of the educational divide that negatively affect the college experience.
By focusing on the actual experiences of students, My Freshman Year offers a refreshing alternative to the frequently divisive debates surrounding the political, economic, and cultural significance of higher education—as well as a novel perspective from which to look at the achievements and difficulties confronting America's colleges and universities in the twenty-first century.
2013 – Warren St. John, Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town*
Clarkston, Georgia, was a typical Southern town until it was designated a refugee
settlement center in the 1990s, becoming the firstAmerican home for scores of families
in flight from the world’s war zones—from Liberia and Sudan to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Suddenly Clarkston’s streets were filled with women wearing the hijab, the smells
of cumin and curry, and kids of all colors playing soccer in any open space they could
find. The town also became home to Luma Mufleh, an American-educated Jordanian woman
who founded a youth soccer team to unify Clarkston’s refugee children and keep them
off the streets. These kids named themselves the Fugees.
Set against the backdrop of an American town that without its consent had become a vast social experiment, Outcasts United follows a pivotal season in the life of the Fugees and their charismatic coach. Warren St. John documents the lives of a diverse group of young people as they miraculously coalesce into a band of brothers, while also drawing a fascinating portrait of a fading American town struggling to accommodate its new arrivals. At the center of the story is fiery Coach Luma, who relentlessly drives her players to success on the soccer field while holding together their lives—and the lives of their families—in the face of a series of daunting challenges.
This fast-paced chronicle of a single season is a complex and inspiring tale of a small town becoming a global community—and an account of the ingenious and complicated ways we create a home in a changing world.
2012 – Deborah Fallows, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language
Deborah Fallows has spent a lot of her life learning languages and traveling around the world. But nothing prepared her for the surprises of learning Mandarin, China's most common language, or the intensity of living in Shanghai and Beijing. Over time, she realized that her struggles and triumphs in studying learning the language of her adopted home provided small clues to deciphering behavior and habits of its people, and its culture's conundrums. As her skill with Mandarin increased, bits of the language - a word, a phrase, an oddity of grammar - became windows into understanding romance, humor, protocol, relationships, and the overflowing humanity of modern China.
Fallows learned, for example, that the abrupt, blunt way of speaking which Chinese people sometimes use isn't rudeness, but is, in fact a way to acknowledge and honor the closeness between two friends. She learned that English speakers' trouble with hearing or saying tones-the variations in inflection that can change a word's meaning-is matched by Chinese speakers' inability not to hear tones, or to even take a guess at understanding what might have been meant when foreigners misuse them.
Dreaming in Chinese is the story of what Deborah Fallows discovered about the Chinese language, and how that helped her make sense of what had at first seemed like the chaos and contradiction of everyday life in China.
The son of a zookeeper, Pi Patel has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior
and a fervent love of stories. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India
to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound
for new homes.
The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them "the truth." After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional—but is it more true?
Separated from his family, Valentino Achak Deng becomes a refugee in war-ravaged southern Sudan. His travels bring him in contact with enemy soldiers, with liberation rebels, with hyenas and lions, with disease and starvation, and with deadly murahaleen (militias on horseback)—the same sort who currently terrorize Darfur. Based closely on actual experiences, What Is the What is heartrending and astonishing, filled with adventure, suspense, tragedy, and, finally, triumph.
2009 – Steve Lopez, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music
Journalist Steve Lopez discovered Nathaniel Ayers, a former classical bass student at Julliard, playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. Deeply affected by the beauty of Ayers’s music, Lopez took it upon himself to change the prodigy’s life—only to find that their relationship would have a profound change on his own.
The Ditchdigger's Daughters is a loving memoir of how a poor and uneducated black laborer, a child of the Great Depression, overcame incredible obstacles to give his daughters a better life. Dr. Thornton's father fought in World War II as a Navy seaman, second class. By age twenty-seven he had five children to raise--all girls, and no boys. He dug ditches for a living while his wife cleaned houses. Together, they formulated a dream: that all their daughters would be doctors. Fortuitously, his daughters formed a traveling band, "The Thornton Sisters", which achieved not only musical success on the "college circuit", but earned them college tuition money as well. From the tenements of East Harlem to the footlights of the Apollo Theatre to the halls of an Ivy League medical school, Dr. Thornton has written a family biography that is a modern Horatio Alger saga. The book tells the true story about a black family of all girls that transcends race, color and gender to rekindle our belief in humanity.
Hunger of Memory is the story of Mexican-American Richard Rodriguez, who begins his
schooling in Sacramento, California, knowing just 50 words of English, and concludes
his university studies in the stately quiet of the reading room of the British Museum.
Here is the poignant journey of a “minority student” who pays the cost of his social assimilation and academic success with a painful alienation — from his past, his parents, his culture — and so describes the high price of “making it” in middle-class America.
Provocative in its positions on affirmative action and bilingual education, Hunger of Memory is a powerful political statement, a profound study of the importance of language … and the moving, intimate portrait of a boy struggling to become a man.
This compelling and inspiring book shows how one person can work wonders. In Mountains
Beyond Mountains, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tracy Kidder tells the true story
of a gifted man who loves the world and has set out to do all he can to cure it.
In medical school, Paul Farmer found his life’s calling: to cure infectious diseases and to bring the lifesaving tools of modern medicine to those who need them most. Kidder’s magnificent account takes us from Harvard to Haiti, Peru, Cuba, and Russia as Farmer changes minds and practices through his dedication to the philosophy that “the only real nation is humanity.” At the heart of this book is the example of a life based on hope and on an understanding of the truth of the Haitian proverb “Beyond mountains there are mountains”—as you solve one problem, another problem presents itself, and so you go on and try to solve that one too.
“Mountains Beyond Mountains unfolds with a force of gathering revelation,” says Annie Dillard, and Jonathan Harr notes, “[Paul Farmer] wants to change the world. Certainly this luminous and powerful book will change the way you see it.”
At Ballou Senior High, a crime-infested school in Washington, D.C., honor students have learned to keep their heads down. Like most inner-city kids, they know that any special attention in a place this dangerous can make you a target of violence. But Cedric Jennings will not swallow his pride, and with unwavering support from his mother, he studies and strives as if his life depends on it–and it does. The summer after his junior year, at a program for minorities at MIT, he gets a fleeting glimpse of life outside, a glimpse that turns into a face-on challenge one year later: acceptance into Brown University, an Ivy League school.
At Brown, finding himself far behind most of the other freshmen, Cedric must manage a bewildering array of intellectual and social challenges. Cedric had hoped that at college he would finally find a place to fit in, but he discovers he has little in common with either the white students, many of whom come from privileged backgrounds, or the middle-class blacks. Having traveled too far to turn back, Cedric is left to rely on his faith, his intelligence, and his determination to keep alive his hope in the unseen–a future of acceptance and reward that he struggles, each day, to envision.
*Denotes year in which there was no author visit.