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2013-2014 Common Book Selection

The Open Books – Open Minds Committee is planning another year of exciting events for faculty and students, inspired by the themes of the 2013-2014 common book selection, PYM by Mat Johnson.

This year's common book selection is Mat Johnson's PYM (2011). The narrator, who is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, sails on a quest to retrace Pym's voyage to Antarctica, where he encounters zombie-like monsters and global warming. It's an ironic comedy, a social satire, and a commentary on race in American culture and literature. PYM gets at really sensitive issues of race and identity through a disarming humor that is, at the same time, quite cutting. PYM pulls 19th-century racial, scientific, cultural discourses as well as its fiction and literature of exploration directly in dialogue with contemporary, possibly "post-racial" contexts and politics. Johnson speaks to this generation's unique struggle to understand the relationship between art and the world as well as with color politics, power, and environmental apocalypse. A more detailed description of the book can be found at Outside Link


Summer Reading Group

Discussion of PYM, in Donovan 202

Tuesdays June 18, June 25, July 2, and July 9, from 12:00-1:00 p.m

Open Books-Open Minds Includes Entire Campus in Freshmen Reading
July 8, 2013

The PYM Marathon Read

In front of the Adams Library on Thursday, September 12, 2013

Beginning at 8:00 a.m., students, faculty, and staff will read the novel throughout the day until we finish sometime in the early evening! If you would like to read, contact Zubeda Jalalzai or Anita Duneer:

Roundtable Discussion: Strategies for Teaching and Understanding PYM

Wednesday, September 18, 12:30-1:30 p.m.

Craig-Lee 255 (English Department Seminar Room)
Instructors, student mentors, and all other interested parties are welcome!

Mat Johnson, author of PYM, speaks at RIC!

October 10, 2013 at 4:00 p.m. in Alger Hall 110.

Book signing to follow.

Thursday, February 27, 2:00 – 3:00 p.m., Fortes Room, Adams Library 409
“Across Time and Space – Art, Exploitation, and Material Diversity in PYM,” 
Bob Dilworth, Department of Art and Art History, University of Rhode Island
Across Time and Space: Art, Exploitation, and Material Diversity in PYM
Tuesday, March 18, 4:00 – 5:00 p.m., Fortes Room, Adams Library 409
“True and Interesting Narratives: Poe’s Pym and PYM’s Poe,” 
Russell Potter, Department of English, Rhode Island College

The Third Annual Open Books – Open Minds Student Conference

Friday - April 11, 2014

Conference Theme: Imagination and Exploration
Keynote Lecture, Student Union Ballroom following lunch, “Monstrous Genres: Hip-Hop Theory, Zombies, and Apocalypse in Mat Johnson’s PYM,” Pamela Bedore, Department of English, University of Connecticut

The conference is a great opportunity for students to get involved with the intellectual life of the college, connect with faculty members, and gain experience presenting their academic work.

More about the student conference

Watch for upcoming announcements as we fill out the schedule of events leading up to the Third Annual Open Books – Open Minds Student Conference.

About PYM

PYM: A Novel by Mat Johnson (2011)

A short video from the RIC Open Books - Open Minds program on this year's common book selection, "PYM"

Inspired by the mysterious ending of Edgar Allan Poe's strange and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, this novel follows Christopher Jaynes, professor of African American Literature, who discovers a crudely crafted manuscript reportedly written by a real survivor of the Poe adventure -- half breed Indian/dark-skinned freedman, Dirk Peters. Ship's cook on Poe's fictional Antarctic voyage that erupted in mutiny, Dirk Peters not only led the uprising, but survived starvation, cannibalism, Antarctic ice and albino giants. Attaining Tsalal, a tropical isle of horrific blackness according to Poe's description, Peters offers a very different account than Pym.

Our protagonist, Christopher Jaynes, is dismissed from his post as professor of African American Literature for refusing to join the college Diversity Committee, and devoting too much time to the study of Whiteness, rather than Blackness, so he organizes an Antarctic journey to pursue his research. Jaynes manages to collect a posse of black friends to help him pursue Peters' tale of ice caves, white Antarctic giants, and the mythical land of Tsalal. What ensues is an amazing tale of ice, slavery, adventure, popular art, Armageddon, rat poison, and Little Debbie snack cakes. Perhaps we could sum it up as an absurdist science fiction sequel to Poe's Pym. No doubt it is a picaresque novel in its own right, but perhaps also a parody of fantasy meta-fiction? Or simply a black comedy about whiteness? Whatever we call it, it is a very funny book.

About the Author

"Born to an Irish-American father and an African American mother and raised in the Philadelphia area, Mat Johnson writes primarily about the lives of African Americans, using fiction, nonfiction and graphic novels as mediums. He is the author of the novels PYM (2011), Hunting in Harlem (2003), and Drop (2000); the nonfiction novella The Great Negro Plot; and the graphic novels Incognegro (2008), Dark Rain (2010), and Right State (2012).

Until 2000, Johnson was a regular columnist for New York's Time Out magazine. His column, entitled "Utter Matness," dealt with a wide breadth of issues--some funny, some serious, but all thought-provoking. Johnson also wrote a blog from 2006-2007 entitled "Niggerati Manor," which discussed African American literature and culture.

In 2007, Johnson was named the first USA James Baldwin Fellow by the United States Artists Foundation, a public charity that supports and promotes the work of American artists. He was awarded the 2011 John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, and prestigious Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. He is also a recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Mat Johnson is a faculty member at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program."


"Chris Jaynes, professor of African American studies … devises a mission to find the lost, black-inhabited island near Antarctica described in Poe's narrative, setting off with an all-black crew that includes his seafaring cousin; his obese friend Garth; his ex-fiancee, Angela, and her husband, Nathaniel; and two flamboyant mechanics. They discover something else described in Poe's narrative … giant, yeti-like, albino humanoids living in large colonies below the ice in Antarctica. This extension of Poe's adventure is a romp that surprises on every page. Funny, insightful, racially important, Pym is a death-defying adventure and a probing examination of notions of race, even at the farthest ends of the earth."

– Julie Hunt, Booklist

"Loony, disrespectful, and sharp, Johnson's Pym is a welcome riff on the surrealistic shudder-fest that is Poe's original…I'll stop there, but Johnson's inventiveness never does."

– NPR's "Fresh Air"

"PYM reframes far more than Poe – it reframes everything American, from the whiteness of Ahab's whale to Detroit bus drivers; from DNA testing to tenure review; from the Gatsbyesque dream of romantic love to the dream of Utopia; from our fear of life to our love of death. No one today writes inside the brilliant black mind better."

– Alice Randall, author of The Wind Done Gone and Rebel Yell

"Social criticism rubs shoulders with cutting satire in this high-concept adventure… [PYM] is caustically hilarious as it offers a memorable take on America's 'racial pathology' and 'the whole ugly story of our world.'"

Publishers Weekly, starred review

"The topic of slavery repeatedly makes subversive and sometimes hilarious appearances. Booker's dog, for example, is named "White Folks." Says Jaynes: "My cousin loved calling his name in anger." Johnson's Pym is unpredictable and wide open to interpretation. Is Jaynes's journey about reconciling his mixed heritage in a world where even "one drop" of African blood makes you a "Negro"? Perhaps. In a story as entertaining and intriguing as Pym, it hardly seems to matter."


"Relentlessly entertaining ... It's no easy task to balance social satire against life-threatening adventure, the allegory against the gory, but Johnson's hand is steady and his ability to play against Poe's text masterly. The book is polyphonous and incisive, an uproarious and hard-driving journey."

New York Times Book Review

"Riotous ... Jaynes never learns much about the white pathology and mindset, but Mr. Johnson knows plenty about the character types he skewers."

Wall Street Journal

"Blisteringly funny ... a full-fledged and fiendishly inventive inversion of Poe's [Pym], a series of bizarre encounters I can't bring myself to spoil, each one more deliciously pointed than the last."

– Laura Miller, Salon


Please make sure to visit the RIC LibGuides for this year's book to view additional information and interactive content! Pym: A Novel, Outside Link Mat Johnson, Outside Link Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Outside Link Other sequels to Poe's Narrative, Outside Link Literary terms, and Outside Link Finding library resources on the book and related issues, such as: Outside Link Polar exploration, Outside Link Antarctica, and Outside Link Whiteness studies.

Student Conference

The Third Annual Open Books – Open Minds Conference

April 11, 2014, Call for Papers

Theme: Imagination and Exploration
Inspired by the 2013-2014 common book: PYM (Adobe PDFCall For Papers)

Images from Previous Conferences

Student Conference 2012
Student Conference 2011

Previous Calls for Papers and Conference Programs:

The Second Annual Open Books – Open Minds Student Conference

2012-2013 common book:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
(Adobe PDFCall for Papers)
April 12, 2013

Adobe PDF Conference Program

The 2013 Open Books – Open Minds Writing Awards

First Place: Dawn Danella, "Night Doctors: Exhuming the Truth"

Second Place: Philip Goldman, "Trusting the Reliable Narrator: Narratological and Lacanian and Perspectives on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

Third Place: Matthew Leo, "Henrietta Lacks: Copyright 2010"

The Inaugural Open Books – Open Minds Student Conference

2011-2012 common book: When the Emperor Was Divine
March 30, 2012 (Adobe PDFcall for papers)


Page last updated: May 05, 2016