You Must Read This

This series, begun by National Public Radio, highlights readers' favorite books. If you could convince every person in the world to read one book, what would it be? Why? How did it affect you the first time you read it?


We will be updating this section with the recommendations of faculty, staff, students, alumnae, and friends of the college. Would you like to write a column? E-mail Susan Baxter, Assistant Director of the Writing Program. To read NPR's series, simply visit their Web site.

 

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson (Broadway, 1999)

Recommended by Cassie Majetic, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology

Have you ever read a story that makes you fall in love with a place, yet feel a little overwhelmed by it, all at the same time? How about a story that manages to be factually fascinating while chronicling hilarious events? Have you ever read something that captured the kind of writing to which you aspire? That’s how I feel each time I read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, an account of his efforts to hike the Appalachian Trail (or at least parts of it). Joined by his old friend Stephen Katz, Bryson immerses himself into the world of the Appalachian Trail with some laugh-out-loud funny results. His dry and self-deprecating sense of humor pervades the story, regardless of whether he’s describing the joyless feeling of hiking in a steady rain, explaining the science behind the loss of the American chestnut tree, or discussing his inability to have a conversation about hiking gear without hurting someone’s feelings. Bryson even manages to make something like a bear attack both intimidating and hilarious, a feat I truly wish I could accomplish while writing (not that I have much opportunity to write about bear attacks, but the skill seems transferrable to other topics). At the same time, Bryson somehow captures with perfect accuracy the sense of awe I always feel when I find myself out in the woods – the changes in sounds and odors, the feeling of being in a different world. If you are a nature lover, or wish you could learn a little more about the natural world (which you should!) while being thoroughly amused, A Walk in the Woods is a perfect travel story for you.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, Christopher McDougall (Knopf, 2009)

Recommended by Anita Houck, Ph.D., Chair and Associate Professor, Religious Studies, Director of the Writing Proficiency Program

Christopher McDougall’s book starts with “the biggest mystery in modern sports: Why does my foot hurt?” A passionate but oft-injured athlete, McDougall scented a solution when he learned of the greatest runners in the world: the Tarahumara, legendary for running Mexico’s Copper Canyon nearly barefoot, for a hundred or more miles at a stretch, and with pleasure. McDougall’s encounters with the Tarahumara change his life, but not before they inspire him to delve into evolutionary biology (including the requisite Harvard researchers), a hint of a business scandal (what? All those athletic-shoe companies are just making it up?), and the challenges of cross-cultural engagement (including the drug wars’ modern threats to an ancient culture). This book got me running again, but if you’re already running, McDougall’s satisfying nonfiction might just inspire you to write: it exemplifies the wisdom of the age-old advice to “write what you know” while also showing the problem-solving power of good, hard research. Weave all that into a plot that brings compelling characters together in a death-defying race, add stylish prose that just won’t quit, and really, what more do you want?

 

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett (W.W. Norton & Co., 2007)

Recommended by Jennifer Juszkiewicz '06, adjunct/visiting faculty 2009-12, English Department 

Let me begin with a confession of which my grandparents (all farmers) would not be proud: I cannot garden. I’ve tried; I have failed. Therefore, the closest I have come to understanding nature is sitting outside and rereading my favorite childhood book: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This is a fairly standard coming-of-age story: Burnett’s protagonist, Mary Lennox, is an unpleasant child who adapts to English society with the help of a gregarious housemaid, grouchy gardener, flirty robin, and two boys. However, I most enjoy when this motley crew comes together to rescue an abandoned, secret garden. Ironically, the beautiful descriptions of reviving plants remind me to pull my own nose out of a book and look at the changing seasons (and mulch my yard). If I read the book in February, it gives me hope that winter will, after all, end. I admit that I lost track The Secret Garden for about ten years, but when I found the new edition, edited and annotated by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, I was hooked again. Gerzina has written a thoughtful introduction and has judiciously selected from the variety of beautiful illustrations from earlier editions. Each page is a joy and, oh, an embossed cover!