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Skidmore College

Summer FYE reading offers chance to imagine post-pandemic life

June 10, 2020
by Peter MacDonald

Interested in a downright different summer read to help put these unprecedented times in perspective?

Look no further than the book selection for Skidmore’s entering Class of 2024 — “Stories of Your Life and Others” by Ted Chiang.

It’s an award-winning set of short stories that will leave you thinking creatively about what we can make of ourselves and our world as we contemplate life after the pandemic. The novella “Story of Your Life,” which is included in the volume, was turned into the 2016 movie “Arrival” starring Amy Adams.

Summer reading has been a centerpiece of the First-Year Experience since the program's inception 16 years ago. According to Amon Emeka, FYE director and associate professor of sociology, the readings demonstrate to students that intellectual engagement need not be confined to classrooms or academic calendars. The readings also provide a common intellectual experience that helps bind the first-year class together.

“Stories of Your Life” rose to the top of the selection committee’s list when COVID-19 dramatically transformed our lives. Although the science fiction genre often conjures images of galaxies far, far away, Chiang’s stories grapple with questions and problems that are deeply rooted in this world. They ask “what if . . .?” questions that stem from multiple disciplines, including mathematics, linguistics and philosophy, offer answers that are imaginative and provocative, and harken to possible futures that are of our making.

“What if you learned to think in a language devoid of words that convey a linear passage of time like ‘before’ and ‘after’?” pondered Emeka, a sociologist. “What if the assumptions that lay at the basis of simple arithmetic were shown to be false? What if we were suddenly deprived of the ability to decipher beauty in human faces?”

The FYE reading team has launched an online portal that uses Stories to connect the first-year class with students, faculty and staff. New content will be created every week.

“There’s no need to keep your thoughts to yourself,” said Dominique Vuvan, assistant professor of psychology. “I encourage the whole Skidmore community to join us this summer as we welcome the Class of 2024 to think, create and converse about Chiang's book."

This year, Emeka and Vuvan, who are both avid cyclists, thought it would be fun to bike the streets of Saratoga Springs as they delivered “Stories of Your Life” to faculty peers. Some of the deliveries were captured on video.

Since the summer of 2005, when the incoming class read “The Burial at Thebes,” Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles' original Greek drama, incoming Skidmore classes have been reading, contemplating and discussing a rich interdisciplinary variety of summer readings. Below are several recent selections.

  • “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World — and Why Things are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund and Ola Rosling. The 2019 selection reveals how our views of the world are informed by predictable unconscious biases and makes an eloquent plea for future decisions based on data.

  •  “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid. The 2018 summer reading follows two young lovers as they leave a war zone in search of a better life. In fantastical fashion, they travel through secret doors, an exercise in desperation and courage, since there’s no way to know in advance where one might end up.

  • “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Written as a letter to his teenage son, the 2016 selection reveals a life of fear that is part of black people’s everyday life because the system that should protect them falls woefully short. Is the American dream possible for African Americans? 

If you are looking to grab a copy of this summer’s reading or many others from previous years, check out Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, which carries many of the titles.

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