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Wednesday, August 28, 2002

There's nothing worse than ruining a satisfying screed with extraneous text after the end, so I'm not adding this to the end of the previous post.

In case anyone's interested, here are the books assigned for the UNC Summer Reading Program for 2001, 2000, and 1999.

1999: There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz.

"Kotlowitz tracks two young boys...and what it is like in parts of contemporary urban America by focusing on life in a tough public-housing project on Chicago's west side over a two-year period. We get to see how real, good people, in a terrible environment, are affected by social problems and social policies at ground level."

(Was on the Oprah list, according to its Amazon entry.)

2000: Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz.

"Tony Horwitz raises issues important for all of us who will call the South home for the next several years. The book...provokes readers to consider the centrality of the Civil War for Southern culture and identity, the importance of race in shaping our worldviews, and the enduring significance of regional differences."

(I had an opportunity to buy this book cheap in Australia, and didn't, and have regretted it ever since. I was fascinated by the cover, but more by why the small Randwick bookstore had so many copies of a book about the American Civil War.)

2001: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. This is a book about a Laotian girl with epilepsy, and her parents' and doctors' struggle to treat her. Basically, it's about the conflict of Western medicine with the beliefs of other cultures. From the UNC website:

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down explores urgent yet painful questions of medical ethics and cultural difference...

Is there such a thing as "too much" cultural difference? How can science coexist respectfully with competing conceptions of the universe? What should be the role of law in defining the best interests of children when parents and doctors disagree?

Be sure to read the Amazon reviews for this one, especially the one from a Hmong-American who says, "...westerners are very rigid about their beliefs and have a sense of superiority in regards to other cultures..."

So, OK. If I were a fire-breathing right-winger I would describe these books as 1999: America bad, 2000: America racist, 2001: America insensitive, 2002: American gets what's coming to it for being bad, crazy, and insensitive.

All right, that last is rather over the top. But why these books each in particular, and why these books as a set? Each book is, in its own way, about cultural differences in America. Does UNC have some sort of fetish on this topic? Why not one of Paul Davies's impenetrable books on the interface between science and religion (I will accept "they're not very good" as an answer), or, No Way: The Nature of the Impossible? Hell, if you want cultural differences why not The Education of Henry Adams? or C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image---books about cultural differences in time, rather than geography. (I recommend the Lewis book; Henry Adams tends to ramble.)

Maybe Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things would be appropriate.

If I thought anyone was reading this blog, I'd ask for examples of thought-provoking books that are either not directly about cultural differences, or ones that show American culture in a positive light. I should be able to think of more myself, but most of my books are packed away.