Since 2006, the Open Books - Open Minds' program has engaged and enriched students, RIC as a whole, and Rhode Island's communities. Here we provide a record of each Common Book selected from 2006–2022 for the Open Books - Open Minds' program.

Common Books From 2022/23–2017/18

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half cover OBOM Common Book

Overview

#1 New York Times Bestseller

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it's not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it's everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters' storylines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person's decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.

Brit Bennett

About the Author

Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, The Mothers, was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for both the NBCC John Leonard First Novel Prize and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Her second novel, The Vanishing Half, was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller, longlisted for the National Book Award, a finalist for the Women’s Prize, and named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times. Bennet has been named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, a NAACP Image Award Finalist, and one of Time’s Next 100 Influential People. Her essays have been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born A Crime book cover by Trevor Noah

Overview

Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

The stories collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.

About the Author

Trevor Noah is the host of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning The Daily Show. Noah rose improbably to stardom with The Racist, his one-man show at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He made his US television debut that year on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and has also appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, becoming the first South African stand-up comedian to appear on either late-night program.

There There by Tommy Orange

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Overview

"Tommy Orange’s wondrous and shattering novel follows twelve characters from Native communities: all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize. Among them is Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind. Dene Oxendene, pulling his life together after his uncle’s death and working at the powwow to honor his memory. Fourteen-year-old Orvil, coming to perform traditional dance for the very first time. Together, this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American—grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, with communion and sacrifice and heroism. Hailed as an instant classic, There There is at once poignant and unflinching, utterly contemporary and truly unforgettable." – Penguin Random House

About the Author

"Tommy Orange is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, he was born and raised in Oakland, California." – Penguin Random House

Acknowledgment

The OBOM committee and the Adams Library wish to acknowledge that Rhode Island College sits on the traditional homelands of the Narragansett and Wampanoag peoples. We acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced removal from this territory, and we honor and respect the many diverse Indigenous peoples still connected to this land on which we gather. It is important to understand the long-standing history that has brought the college to reside on this land, and to seek to understand our roles within that history.

"A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgement." Native Governance Center 
This guide describes the importance of land acknowledgment and tips for creating an acknowledgment statement.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

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Overview

Growing up in rural Minnesota, Jahren spent her happiest hours with her father, who taught physics and earth science at a local community college and gave his daughter free rein in his laboratory after hours. In Lab Girl, Jahren traces her path from an early infatuation with the natural world to her hard-earned triumphs as a scientist recognized for breakthrough contributions to her field. She braids together stories of her emotional and professional challenges, of the bond with her odd and brilliant lab partner who helped her persevere, and descriptions of plant life that, at once lyrical and precise, reveal the unseen processes driving the natural world. Through these different perspectives, she draws unexpected connections between plants and the people whose lives depend on them that will make you see both realms in a new light.” – The Publisher

About the Author

Hope Jahren is an American geochemist and geobiologist at the University of Oslo in Norway, known for her work using stable isotope analysis to analyze fossil forests dating to the Eocene. She has won many prestigious awards in the field, including the James B. Macelwane Medal of the American Geophysical Union.

She is the author of both Lab Girl (2016) and The Story of More (2020) as well as numerous peer-reviewed publications.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

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Overview

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through...

Exit West follows these remarkable characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.

About the Author

Mohsin Hamid is the author of four novels -- Moth SmokeThe Reluctant FundamentalistHow to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Exit West -- and a book of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations. His writing has been translated into forty languages, featured on bestseller lists, and adapted for the cinema. Born in Lahore, he has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Overview

Hailed by Toni Morrison as "required reading," a bold and personal literary exploration of America's racial history. In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation's history and current crisis. Coates shares with his son--and readers--the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children's lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.​

About the Author

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a distinguished writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He is the author of the bestselling books The Beautiful Struggle, We Were Eight Years in Power, and Between The World And Me, which won the National Book Award in 2015. His first novel, The Water Dancer, was released in September 2019. Ta-Nehisi is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. He is also the current author of the Marvel comics The Black Panther and Captain America.

Common Books From 2016/17–2011/12

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

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Overview

“Is Google making us stupid?” When Nicholas Carr posed that question, in a celebrated Atlantic Monthly cover story, he tapped into a well of anxiety about how the Internet is changing us. He also crystallized one of the most important debates of our time: As we enjoy the Net’s bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?

Now, Carr expands his argument into the most compelling exploration of the Internet’s intellectual and cultural consequences yet published. As he describes how human thought has been shaped through the centuries by “tools of the mind”—from the alphabet to maps, to the printing press, the clock, and the computer—Carr interweaves a fascinating account of recent discoveries in neuroscience by such pioneers as Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel. Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways.”  – W. W. Norton & Company

About the Author

“Nicholas Carr is the author of The Shallows, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, as well as The Big Switch and Does IT Matter? His articles and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Wall Street JournalWired, and the New Republic, and he writes the widely read blog Rough Type. He has been writer-in-residence at the University of California, Berkeley, and an executive editor of the Harvard Business Review.” – W.W. Norton & Company

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

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Overview

“Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere—and risk it all—in the name of love.” – Riverhead Books

About the Author

“Junot Díaz holds the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a success he adds to an already long list of accolades that have been awarded to his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A true literary triumph, this heartbreaking, at times hilarious, always dazzling story of the endless human capacity to persevere in the name of love confirms Díaz as one of the best and most exciting literary voices of our time...

Most recently, Díaz has released another short story collection titled This Is How You Lose Her, which has already received an incredible amount of praise and recognition from critics all over the world. In the collection, Díaz uses his talent to write about the haunting and impossible power of love. Díaz’s debut short story collection, Drown, was also a publishing sensation and is now a landmark of contemporary literature. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Best American Short Stories.

Díaz was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. He now lives in New York City and Boston, where he teaches at MIT.” – Penguin Random House

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

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Overview

Musicophilia explores the uniquely human phenomenon of music, from its various roles in human lives to its therapeutic power. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, famed for his entertaining books about the brain and its disorders, shares stories about the unusual symptoms and recoveries of his patients and correspondents. His characteristic compassion and curiosity engage the reader's interest in an exploration of music's power, the place it occupies in the brain, and how it affects human lives.

Sacks not only examines perfect pitch and synesthesia, but some extremely unusual developments in musical skill, as well as musical hallucinations, dreams, and disorders. Brain activity related to music provides some hints, but its complexity leaves us with more mysteries than certainties.  The individual experiences of patients, musicians, and ordinary people provide insights and Sacks's tales prove music's power to lift depression, move our bodies, stimulate memories, or torment us with repetition and dysharmonia.

Music therapy offers more certainty through practice than theory, offering tremendous comfort to patients with brain damage and degenerative neuropathies. Expressive aphasia (a loss of spoken language), when not accompanied by amusia (the inability to produce or comprehend music), is generally treatable with music therapy. Similarly, for young children, music lessons correlate with early development of reading skills. Sacks illustrates the role of music therapy in treating Tourette's Syndrome, Parkinson's Disease, and various forms of dementia with engaging stories of real people and their experiences, while his extensive bibliography expands on the science that supports his observations.

About the Author

Oliver Sacks, M.D. is a physician, a best-selling author, and a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. He is best known for his collections of neurological case histories, including The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985), Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007) and The Mind’s Eye (2010). Awakenings (1973), his book about a group of patients who had survived the great encephalitis lethargica epidemic of the early-twentieth century, inspired the 1990 Academy Award-nominated feature film directed by Penny Marshall, and starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. The New York Times has referred to him as “the poet laureate of medicine.” 

Dr. Sacks is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

PYM: A Novel by Mat Johnson

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Overview

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."

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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Overview

Henrietta Lacks was a young African American woman, treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital for cervical cancer in 1950. She was from Virginia, but Johns Hopkins was the closest hospital that would treat African Americans at that time. Though she died of cancer, her tumor cells lived on and, in fact, were extraordinarily reproductive: the "HeLa" cell strain became fundamental in subsequent medical research. Until the publication of Skloot's book, Henrietta Lacks's contribution to science was essentially forgotten. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has highlighted Lacks's role in contemporary bio-medical research as well as issues of exploitation, ownership, consent, and racial inequality. It has been a best seller since its publication in 2010.

About the Author

"Rebecca Skloot is an award-winning science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times MagazineO, The Oprah MagazineDiscover; and many others. She is coeditor of The Best American Science Writing 2011 and has worked as a correspondent for NPR's Radiolab and PBS's Nova ScienceNOW. She was named one of five surprising leaders of 2010 by the Washington Post. Skloot's debut book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, took more than a decade to research and write, and instantly became a New York Times bestseller. It was chosen as a best book of 2010 by more than sixty media outlets, including Entertainment WeeklyPeople, and the New York Times. It is being translated into more than twenty-five languages, adapted into a young reader edition, and being made into an HBO film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. Skloot is the founder and president of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation. She has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. She has taught creative writing and science journalism at the University of Memphis, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University. She lives in Chicago." – Random House

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

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Overview

This powerful first novel describes a Japanese family’s displacement from its home in Berkeley to an internment camp. After the father is arrested in 1942 on suspicion of conspiracy, the mother, daughter, and son spend three years being moved from camp to camp, hearing only occasionally from the father and then only in heavily-censored letters. The story of those three years, with their “No Japs Allowed” signs and dreadful living conditions--and the aftermath, when the family returns to its vandalized home and tries to return to normalcy--is told from multiple, shifting points of view. For the novel, Otsuka drew on her grandparents’ experiences as well as on research into the 10,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

Common Books From 2010/11–2006/07

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser

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Overview

Rolling Stone asked Schlosser to write an article looking at America through fast food in 1997 after reading his article on migrants in Atlantic Monthly.He then spent nearly three years researching the fast-food industry, from the slaughterhouses and packing plants that turn out the burgers to the minimum-wage workers who cook them to the television commercials that entice children to eat them with the lure of cheap toys and colorful playgrounds.The experience enraged and appalled him.

The book is divided into two sections: "The American Way" and "Meat and Potatoes". "The American Way" the first part, takes a historical view of the fast food business by analyzing its beginnings within post-World War II America while "Meat and Potatoes" examines the specific mechanisms of the fast-food industry within a modern context as well as its influence.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

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Overview

"Nine-year-old Oskar Schell has embarked on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York. His goal is to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. This seemingly impossible task will bring Oskar into contact with survivors of all sorts on an exhilarating, affecting, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey."

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

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Overview

A  gripping story of a child's journey through hell and back. There may be as many as 300,000 child soldiers, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s, in more than fifty conflicts around the world. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them. He is one of the first to tell his story in his own words.

In A Long Way Gone, Beah, now in his mid 30's, tells a riveting story of how at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he'd been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. Eventually released by the army and sent to a UNICEF rehabilitation center, he struggled to regain his humanity and to reenter the world of civilians, who viewed him with fear and suspicion. This is, at last, a story of redemption and hope.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

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Overview

"When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum's classic tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil?

Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that we will never look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to be the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil." – The Publisher

The Good Times Are Killing Me by Lynda Barry

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Overview

"Readers of alternative weeklies will be familiar with Lynda Barry's work from her long-running comic strip, Ernie Pook's Comeek. Similarly, The Good Times Are Killing Me focuses on the surprisingly complex emotional world of children. It is the story of a neighborhood going through the throes of integration and white flight as seen through the eyes of young Edna Arkins. Edna forms an unlikely friendship with Bonna Willis, a girl with a talent for "ass beating." Edna is white and Bonna is black, and from the start there are pressures from both sides against their friendship. As always, Barry is an impeccable observer of the way kids think and talk--several passages are certain to bring memories of intense schoolyard negotiations rushing back. Barry's artwork comes into play as well--each chapter is punctuated with slightly more painterly versions of her characteristically raw drawing style. By turns funny and moving, The Good Times Are Killing Me is an immensely satisfying read.”

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