The WSU Common Book Project ultimately aims to grow across the entire campus and into the local community.
Below is a list of the previously selected WSU Common Books.
Published in 2010, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the fascinating story of Henrietta Lacks, the forgotten woman whose cells became one of the most important tools in modern medicine, and of Lacks’s descendants, many of whom feel betrayed by the scientific and medical establishments. Although Henrietta’s cells, later named HeLa, were essential in developing the polio vaccine and have aided in developing in-vitro fertilization and cloning, her family has never received any financial compensation from the sale or use of the cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a #1 New York Times bestseller and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for seven years after its publication. Programming during the 2017-18 academic year included keynote addresses by Carl Elliott and Alice Dreger, a screening of the 2017 film version of the book, and panel discussions that featured WSU faculty members from the departments of English, Ethnic Studies, History, Philosophy, Psychology, and Sociology.
A Deadly Wandering: A Mystery, A Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age explores the aftermath of a fatal car accident in 2006, in which nineteen-year-old Reggie Shaw struck and killed two scientists while texting and driving near Logan, Utah. Richtel weaves together Reggie’s story, the police investigation into the crash, the state’s prosecution of the case, and research on the science of attention. Programming during the 2016-17 academic year included a campus visit by the author, a magic show that highlighted the way one’s attention can be manipulated, meditation sessions, and media "fasts."
American Born Chinese is a graphic novel that deftly weaves together three seemingly unrelated stories. One features Jin Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants to the US who is trying to fit in at a new school where he is bullied and ostracized because of his ethnicity. The arrival of a new kid from Taiwan complicates Jin’s efforts to transform himself into an all-American kid. Yang also retells the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, whose grand ambitions for power and immortality are hindered by the fact that he is just a monkey. The third story is about Danny, a popular all-American kid whose life is disrupted by the arrival of his obnoxious Chinese cousin Chin-Kee, the embodiment of multiple Asian stereotypes; Danny is forced to transfer to a new school after Chin-Kee ruins his reputation. All three stories explore questions of identity and cultural stereotypes, and the stories eventually converge as the three characters work to resolve the identity crises and problems they face.
The American Way of Eating explores the dilemma faced by many Americans who want to eat good, healthy food but aren’t sure they can afford it. McMillan’s book asks why Americans, and particularly working Americans, eat the way they do, as well as what they can do change it. To start to answer these questions, McMillan spent a year working undercover in three jobs in different parts of the American food system, trying to support herself and to eat on the wages she earned in each position. During her year of undercover reporting, McMillan picked fruit and cut garlic in California, stocked produce at a Wal-Mart near Detroit, and worked in the kitchen at a New York Applebee’s. In addition to her work experiences, McMillan chronicles her experience cooking at home, documenting the kind of food she and her coworkers can afford to buy and prepare for themselves. McMillan foregrounds issues of labor, class, and affordability that are often absent from recent conversations about food and sustainability in the US.
The 2013-14 selection, Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit explores the hidden costs of American consumers’ demand for a year-round supply of fresh, perfectly round, bright red tomatoes. More specifically, Estabrook details the enormous human and environmental costs of the $5 billion fresh tomato industry, tracing the supermarket tomato on its journey from seed to field to consumer. Tomatoland describes troubling cases of pesticide exposure and human trafficking; examines the business of commercial tomato production; takes readers to the laboratories of scientists working to develop new tomato varieties; and recounts the efforts of those working to improve both the taste of tomatoes and the methods by which they are grown. Tomatoland draws on Estabrook’s broad research in labor and immigration issues, plant genetics, and agriculture, as well as his interviews with a wide range of those involved in the tomato industry—migrant workers, agribusiness executives, lawyers, community organizers, and organic farmers, to name just a few.
The 2012-13 selection, Michael Kimmel's Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, successfully generated interdisciplinary conversation and inquiry on campus, as it was widely adopted in English, WAGS, History, Sociology, and Communication Studies courses; it was also read and discussed by campus groups such as NOMAS, WILL, and several student parent groups. Based on extensive sociological and historical research, as well as Kimmel's interviews with hundreds of young men and women across the country, Guyland explores the complex and often troubling social world in which boys, from age 16 to 26, are expected to make the transition to manhood. Kimmel examines the causes and effects of guys' prolonged adolescence, particularly its implications for adult relationships, families, and professional success. Kimmel's campus visits in October 2012 and March 2013 included visits to WAGS classes, discussions with student groups, a screening of Kirby Dick's documentary film The Invisible War, and public discussions with experts on gender issues from Sociology, Communication Studies, English and Student Support Services
In 2011-12, Cheri Register’s Packinghouse Daughter was selected as the Common Book. Register’s unique historical memoir recalls the 1959 meatpackers' strike that divided her hometown of Albert Lea, Minnesota. There, violence erupted when the company "replaced" its union workers with strikebreakers, putting to the test family loyalties and community stability. Packinghouse Daughter was widely adopted in first-year composition classes, as well as in history and WAGS courses. Register’s campus visits in September 2011 and February 2012 included visits to creative writing classes and public discussions with state and local labor leaders, labor historians, and experts on labor and protest music.
For 2010-11, WSU students read Heather Rogers' Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. Again the book was taught in most sections of English 111 and a range of courses across the curriculum. Rogers' October 2010 visit coincided with a number of campus initiatives promoting environmentalism and sustainability, and programming featured campus and community experts in waste management. Rogers met and collaborated with members of WSU’s student Environmental Club and campus leaders on sustainability issues.
The 2009-10 selection, Kao Kalia Yang's The Latehomecomer, was also adopted widely, read by nearly every incoming first-year student at WSU. The Latehomecomer details Yang’s own family’s journey, beginning with their life in Laos during the Vietnam War and their escape into Thailand’s Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. From there, where Yang was born, they immigrated to St. Paul when Yang was six years old. The memoir also recounts Yang’s own experiences with American life as she and her family found themselves newcomers in a strange land. “The Latehomecomer is a wonderful tribute to a culture that is an important part of our own WSU community,” says English professor Debra Cumberland, who nominated its selection. “It is a beautifully written, lyrical work, one from which students would learn about an important part of history and about the Hmong community.” Yang's campus visits were attended by audiences of over 2,500 students, faculty, and community members, and programming featured presentations by WSU alumnus Dr. Zha Blong Xiong of the University of Minnesota and WSU's Hmong Awareness Student Association.
In 2008-09, over 2,000 students and faculty read Dr. Robert Morris's The Blue Death: The Intriguing Past and Present Danger of the Water You Drink. Dr. Morris's book was not only adopted widely in first-year composition courses but also across the curriculum, from biology, geoscience, and physics courses to social science, political science, and history classes at all levels of instruction. The university focused its attention on the growing crisis over water safety, with a lecture series, film festival, and community events all addressing this vital contemporary problem. The events culminated with a university-wide celebration of drinking water on Earth Day.
In 2007-08, WSU selected Ruth Ozeki's novel My Year of Meats. My Year of Meats tells the story of Jane and Akiko, two women on opposite sides of the planet, whose lives are connected by a TV cooking show. My Year of Meats was an international success, translated into eleven languages and published in fourteen countries. It won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Award, the Imus/Barnes and Noble American Book Award, and a Special Jury Prize of the World Cookbook Awards in Versailles. "Students from numerous disciplines have been truly enthusiastic about this wide-ranging novel, which addresses cross-cultural understanding, the complexities of denial, and the effects of growth hormones in our food," says WSU Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Oness. "My Year of Meats is both penetrating and entertaining, and it’s a testament to Ozeki’s skill that she delivers an important message in a provocative and humorous novel." My Year of Meats was read by over 2,000 students and faculty.
In the second year of the project, participation increased considerably. During the 06-07 year, over 1,800 students read Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Trails with an Indian Elder, and the evening reading sessions featuring the author brought a near-capacity crowd of almost 700 students to Somsen auditorium. Over one hundred students also attended each of the additional sessions featuring the author during his two-day visits each term. Author Nerburn’s surprising comments about fictionalizing events and compositing characters brought an unforeseen and unanticipated energy to the classroom discussions that followed as readers debated the ethics of representation in non-fiction writing.
In the first year of the project, 2005-06, over 1,000 WSU students read—and discussed, and wrote about, and attended events related to—Rochester Author Fan Shen’s Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard. The book was taught in dozens of WSU classes, primarily first-year composition, and WSU students met and discussed the book and its topic, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with its author in classroom settings, with other panelists and readers, and in the context of other narratives and perspectives.