What First Years Read in 2020

Each year, many campuses select common reading to discuss grand challenges from interdisciplinary perspectives and build community around the exchange of ideas. The Society surveyed selections from our 290 chapters to identify prominent themes and recurring titles for first-year students beginning college in a world utterly disrupted.  

Alongside the pandemic, protests and calls for social change continue as racism, police brutality, and injustice persist. Climate change remains a highly salient issue as wildfires and heat waves devastate the West Coast and violent storms pound vulnerable Gulf Coast communities. The pandemic also exposed and exacerbated inequalities—based on race, ethnicity, gender, income, national origin, and citizenship status. 

This year, many colleges and universities assigned common books for the Class of 2024 as they navigate intersecting and overwhelming crises. Below, you will find recurring titles from this year’s common reading lists from Phi Beta Kappa’s chapter institutions that exemplify the themes of racism and injustice; science, public health, and the environment; inequality and bias; and immigrants, refugees, and belonging. Selections are listed in order of frequency of appearance. 
Racism and Injustice
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Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

A true story about the potential for mercy to redeem  and a clarion call to end mass incarceration in America — from the executive director Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and award-winning professor of law at New York University Law School. 

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How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi

An essential work for examining antiracist ideas to form a more just and equitable society—from the most basic concepts to visionary possibilities—that will help readers see all forms of racism clearly, understand their poisonous consequences, and work to oppose them.

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The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones/The New York Times Magazine

An ongoing initiative that aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.

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Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

An innovative work of poetry, prose, and visual images, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named "post-race" society.

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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

The compelling and inspiring story of one man’s coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed. 

Science, Public Health, and the Environment
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What the Eyes Don't See by Mona Hanna-Attisha

An account of the Flint water crises by the pediatrician that discovered bureaucratic indifference to the exposure of children to lead and the citizen action that followed to fight for justice and safe drinking water for their commmunity.

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Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on mathematical modeling—a pervasive new force in society that threatens to undermine democracy and widen inequality.

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The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

A history of the most lethal influenza that provides us sobering model as we confront the COVID- 19 pandemic, reminding us that the strongest weapon against epidemic disease is truth.

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The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

A novelist examines our inability—at the level of literature, history, and politics—to grasp the scale and violence of climate change, asking us to imagine other forms of human existence to confront an urgent task of our time.

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A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit

An investigation of the altruism, resourcefulness, and generosity that arise amid disaster's disruption, and considers their implications for everyday life. 

Inequality and Bias
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Evicted by Matthew Desmond

A book that transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem.

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Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

A Pulitzer-Prize winning author examines the unspoken caste system that shaped America  and shows how lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.

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Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

With scientific, investigative, and personal perspectives, a leading expert on unconscious bias offers language and tools to address racial bias at all levels of society—in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and criminal justice system. 

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Tales of Two Americas by John Freeman

Thirty-six major contemporary writers examine life in a deeply divided America, illustrating how boundaries break down with shared experiences and  showing how stories can help alleviate collective suffering.

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Sweat by Lynn Nottage

Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Sweat is a reflection of the poignant outcome of America’s economic decline based on Nottage’s extensive research and interviews with residents of Reading, Pennsylvania.

Immigration, Refugees, and Belonging
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Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas

A memoir from Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, called “the most famous undocumented immigrant in America,” carefully illustrates how immigration policies work and how undocumented people live in the United States.

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The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

Agraphic novel portrayin g one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam, illuminating the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects displacement has on a child and her family. 

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (ΦBK, Princeton University)

A love story about refugees  from a war-torn country that imagines the forces that drive ordinary people from their homes into the uncertain embrace of new lands.

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Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet (ΦBK, Cornell University)

The moving story of first-generationn college student torn between generational, cultural, and political forces when her family breaks apart as she heads off to college.

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Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli

 Structured around the forty questions the authors translated and asked undocumented Latin American children facing deportation in her work as a translater, this book humanizes young migrants and highlights the contradiction between the idea of America as a fiction for immigrants and the reality of the North American refugee crisis.


Researched and compiled by Event & Advocacy Intern Micalah Collins

Summer Reading List 2020 Phi Beta Kappa Book Awards Winners