Book Recommendations from Our Graduate Students

Based on their summer 2021 readings, our graduate students recommend:

Andrew Lee (3rd year PhD student in the LIT lab):

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez is a mystical and captivating, dream-like novel. Looking back, what I appreciate most about this book is the wide range of stories that the Colombian author takes his readers through, from intimate, personal, and cherishable familial episodes all the way to civil war, revolution, and even violent massacres. Such a wide range of themes left me with a wide spectrum of emotions as well. The novel is full of mystery and magic, while feeling very relatable and true to life. The novel is also full of unique and colorful characters – one moment you may find yourself rooting for the noble cause of a “protagonist”, followed by unusual character developments that turn them into unrelatable and incomprehensible antagonists. Throughout the novel, I was so immersed with the characters that by the end, I was left with a feeling of vacancy. For anyone looking for something unique, whether it’s story, story telling, characters, character development, themes or premises, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is a classic worth reading.

2. For anyone looking for self-improvement, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey may also be an excellent choice. In this book, the author walks through 7 habits that he believes everyone should build. Perhaps you are rolling your eyes, thinking “Great, another self-help book”, and I understand where you are coming from, but what this book has to offer is genuinely useful and applicable takeaways for everyone. Because of its abundance of advice, it is a book that is refreshing every time I come back to it, with new perspectives and takeaways each time. Perhaps one of the key takeaways for me was the power of habits. Although they may be simple, routine thoughts or exercises, over time they can really accumulate into building one’s character. The book also gives the reader a chance for self-reflection and to be honest with themselves. What are the areas that I struggle with? What areas can I improve on? Taking a minute or two to reflect on one’s own character naturally makes way for new healthy habits to form. Reading the book is the easy part — implementing the habits is where the challenge comes. Building new habits is not easy, but as the Roman poet Ovid says, habits change into character.

Do June Min (2nd year PhD student in the LIT lab):

3. The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris – As a natural language processing (NLP) researcher, I often feel that my understanding of linguistics is too shallow. Although we freely borrow ideas and concepts from the field and present research work inspired by theoretical and experimental linguistics, I feel that currently the center of gravity of cutting-edge NLP research mainly lies on the engineering side. Granted, there is computational linguistics, which is the other crossbreed between linguistics and computer science, and it more explicitly inherits and recognizes the legacy and framework of academic linguistics. 

This was part of why I picked up this book: to obtain a view of how linguistics has evolved through exchanges and debates between scholars who often challenged the norm and advanced revolutionary ideas. After finishing the book, I may not have retained all of the ideas introduced, but I can say I now more clearly see how linguistics and NLP researchers are fundamentally engaged in the identical goal of figuring out what language is and how we use it to make and convey meaning. Roughly, NLP and AI researchers work from the bottom up and present models of language using the state-of-the-art tools that they think have the best capacity to mimic and model human communication. Conversely, linguistics try to reason, both empirically and theoretically, what the models must look like, given what we know about how humans actually use language. I won’t go into the details about the book, except that the author unravels an engaging story about how linguistics was galvanized and revolutionized by the legendary Chomsky and his equally impressive colleagues and proteges. Plus, there is some drama – “Wars!”

4. How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan – Before I came to the U.S, my idea of ”drugs” didn’t differentiate between marijuana, methamphetamine, or psychedelics. After I studied here for a few years, my view of drugs became somewhat more nuanced; I had friends from undergraduate years who smoked marijuana regularly who seemed completely fine and functional, even exemplary in many regards. Perhaps not all drugs are that bad, I had concluded. Still, life in America strengthened the idea of the “big bad drug” that destroyed lives and families. Countless people were addicted to heroin, methamphetamine, or you name it, and I could see them wandering and suffering in the streets of major cities. ”Drugs” was the cause.

Then, I was introduced to this book in a health/lifestyle podcast I occasionally listened to. Author Michael Pollan appeared himself as a guest, and laid out the synopsis of the story he tells in the book. In short, the idea of narcotics as commonly imagined by people like me is political and fluid in nature, and this unfortunately stops us from exploring various natural and synthetic substances as tools for medical treatment and improving the quality of life. I was most impressed by Dr Roland Griffiths’ finding that terminal patients reported having an easier time accepting the prospect of dying after a psychedelic drug was administered under a therapeutic, controlled setting. Some may think that this feels insubstantial compared to an effective treatment of the terminal disease itself. However, to me it seems like a great way to help patients overcome their fear and anxiety and spend the last moments of their lives in peace, a priceless gift. 

This book definitely changed my mind in how I think about drugs. I became aware of the differences between substances that are deemed illegal or problematic. Also, I am hopeful that in the future we are able to walk back the hasty decisions and judgements we made on some substances and embrace them as tools at our disposal, not as nefarious corruptors like I had once thought.

5. The title of this novel, Submission, is a dual reference to the religion Islam (meaning submission to God in Arabic) and the (imagined) demographic and political surrender of the West to the “hordes” of immigrants from third world countries. The plot revolves around an aging, emmasculated literature professor in France who witnesses a pivotal moment in French politics when a left-coalition forms to elect a muslim presidential candidate backed by the rapidly growing muslim population in France, named Ben-Abbes, in order to stop the ultra-rightist Marine Le Pen from being elected as President of France. The plot is far-fetched, at least now in 2021, and sounds comical, but nonetheless Houellebecq trudges on to have the protagonist submit to a new French order where he is persuaded to convert to Islam and teach in a male-only institution, with a stable income and a new family as reward of his spiritual rebirth.

I’d like to clearly state that I don’t agree with Houellebecq’s politics. He is a self-proclaimed islamophobe who thinks that women’s liberation did irreversible damage to the Western world. What I do appreciate about his novels then, is his brutal honesty in depicting how a good chunk of the well-off world are increasingly feeling attacked and out-of-place in the rapidly changing society. Houellebecq doesn’t sugarcoat or tone-down the incel-ish frustrations thought and voiced by the protagonist to make him more palatable and he is clearly the author’s surrogate. With various social justice movements springing up and previously disenfranchised peoples being given more attention (although mostly confined to media coverage and social discourse, rather than actual policies and material conditions), the emasculated literature professor feels that progress will leave him deprived of social standing and prestige, or even insurance of minimum quality of life. This paranoia may be imagined and the complaints look rather whiny and one-sided, but at least it reflects how a significant section of the developed world thinks, as evidenced by the rise of right-wing and nativist parties and general discontent against the status quo, globalism. 

It seems to me that there is no easy solution to this growing schism. Leaders of the wWest or the third world alike are stoking the fire for their own gains instead of finding a path of reconciliation. Thus the seemingly farcical conclusion of the novel reads as Houellebecq’s way of admitting that neither the fascist fantasy of nativist purification nor the liberal wish of the woke movement educating the hate and racism away are plausible solutions.