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Books of Influence

Books of Influence

UD Faculty June 28, 2019
Good books do more than illuminate the world around us — they move us to act in ways welcomed and unexpected. Faculty shine light on some of their favorites.

The Lorax

Margaret Pinnell '88, 
Associate Dean for Faculty and Staff Development and The Bernhard Schmidt Chair in Engineering Leadership

I grew up immersed in an environment where weekly trips to the library were a must, and a common weekend night included sitting around the rickety, candlelit dining room table with my aunts, mom and grandma as they drank wine and discussed, debated and contemplated the works of Robinson, Yeats, Whitman, Dickinson and Frost. Given that, you might be surprised to learn that the book that had the most significant influence on me is a children’s book. Yes, a children’s book by the famous writer, cartoonist and animator Theodore Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss. 

This book, The Lorax, is about a boy who pays the Once-ler to hear about how the Lorax was lifted and taken away. The story begins with a beautiful town inhabited by interesting creatures whose lives change drastically when the Once-ler turns Truffula trees into Thneeds, clothes which everyone needs. The Lorax, who speaks for the trees, voices his concern and disapproval. When the very last Truffula tree is cut, factory closed and town left in ruins, the Lorax lifts himself up and disappears behind the smog, leaving a small monument with the word “Unless” engraved upon it. After contemplating the monument for years, the Once-ler shares his wisdom: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The story closes with the Once-ler giving the boy the last Truffula seed, asking him to reforest the area so the Lorax and all of the creatures may return.

I do not remember reading this book as a child. It could be that this book was published in 1971, when I was 7 years old. It could be that my love for Little Peewee, the Circus Dog and my insistence that this book be read to me every night left little time for other literary works. Or, maybe this book wasn’t popular in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. After all, prior to the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the closing of the steel mills on Black Monday, Sept. 19, 1977, Youngstown was one of the smog capitals of the world. Lake Erie — a favorite vacation spot of my family — was declared dead, the smell of sulfur suffocated the city, and a thick black film coated the siding of most of the homes. Perhaps, the town described in The Lorax seemed a little too similar to Youngstown.

“Perhaps, the town described in The Lorax seemed a little too similar to Youngstown.”

I do, however, have great memories of reading The Lorax to my three children. The timing corresponded to the pursuance of my doctorate in materials engineering and the beginning of my academic career, both at UD. This book made me realize the important role that a faculty member plays in the development of the next generation of ethical and thoughtful engineers and entrepreneurs. And, it reminded me that understanding the technical content in an engineering course is not enough. Instead, we are called to help our students understand the impact of their engineering decisions on the environment, the people and the economy. We are called to care for God’s creation and to be good stewards of this beautiful planet we live on. I think all of these reminders that came from reading The Lorax to my children are what drew me to working with UD’s program ETHOS — Engineers in Technical Humanitarian Opportunities for Service-learning — and led me to a nontraditional engineering faculty career focused on community-engaged learning and engineering education. I wanted to help develop Loraxes, not Once-lers. 

So, if you have not read The Lorax or seen the 2012 movie, I strongly encourage you to do so. Who knows, maybe reading The Lorax inspired Pope Francis to write his papal encyclical letter Laudato Si’, which encourages everyone to fight against climate change and environmental destruction. Regardless, it had an impact on me. 

Transforming Mathematics Teacher Education in the Digital Age

Shannon Driskell, Professor of Mathematics Education

My doctoral dissertation focused on using technology to teach 2-D shapes, and much of my research since
then has addressed teaching mathematics with technology. I was honored recently when Margaret Niess, a researcher at the forefront of technological pedagogical content knowledge, known as TPACK, asked me to co-edit with
her and Karen Hollebrands Transforming Mathematics Teacher Education in the Digital Age. Working on this book furthered my knowledge of innovative technological ideas, tools and skills that not only facilitate teachers’ mathematics instruction but also enhance students’ learning and comprehension. This book inspired me professionally,
and I look forward to acquainting my preservice education students with many of its ideas. 

The Five People You Meet In Heaven

Peter Titlebaum, Professor of Health and Sport Science

When my girls were 10 or 11, we’d read together The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. You can’t read this book without getting somewhat emotional; and I was emotional with them, reading each night before they’d go to bed. Its story fulfills our need to believe that there is more to this life. We may not understand completely how people touch us or how we touch others, but the mark that we make could be our legacy. When the sequel The Next Person You Meet in Heaven came out last year, Alayna, my youngest daughter, gave it to me, and after I had read it, I gave it to Leah, my other daughter. That I was able to share the book with them, and the act that it resonated with them, is gratifying. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

James Farrelly ’66, 
Professor of English

I first met Mark Twain’s Huck Finn in the Classic Comics version of the book as an eighth grader in 1955; it was pure adventure from the initial frame to the last. The freedom to be on one’s own, to deal with strange people and strange occurrences drew me in, and the larger issues of race, man’s inhumanity to man, shady characters out for their own good, and feuding, fussing and fighting remained in the shadows. Huck’s independence, survival instinct and refusal to live in a box were my focus, and social, cultural and moral issues were subordinated to the narrator’s mesmerizing confident voice of self-reliance.

“It was pure adventure from the initial frame to the last.”

Three years later I was a high school junior reading the full text (no pictures) of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and wondering how the story got so long. I remember questioning Huck’s decision making more than accepting it as I turned the pages and found myself wondering why Huck was so keen to hit the road rather than deal with the problems he faced growing up. The existential questions of why was I born, why am I living, what do I get and what am I giving were not in my vocabulary at the time, but I did begin to notice the ambiguity (more like “confusion” in teenspeak) Twain was raising about Huck’s choices at times, although the ending of the novel did reinforce my sense that Huck had “to light out for the territory, ahead of the rest because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I’ve been there before.” Clearly, he wanted freedom more than “sivilizing.” And who could blame him?

Who, indeed! Well, my American lit professor in college, for one. It was my senior year in 1963, and my professor with a newly minted doctorate from Brown started our discussion with the question, “What mistakes does Huck Finn make in trying to carve his own destiny?” Surely, I thought, he meant to say “choices” and not “mistakes,” but these were the times when New Criticism was in vogue and the sanctity of the text and close reading held sway. So, instead of paying attention to the story, we were encouraged to pick it apart and view it as a quest rather than a loose series of adventures designed to delight rather than instruct. And at the end of our analysis we alone were able to determine if Huck did the right thing or not. 

New Criticism was in decline when I finally got my shot at teaching the book in 1985. I decided to return to the discovery mode that drew me in the first time I read the novel. Fast forward 34 years, and I can honestly say that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and each step I took in the learning process led me to my English major in college and my career as an English professor. One could call me “sivilized,” but like Huck I yearn to be free! 

The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory

Rebecca Whisnant, Chair of the Department of Philosophy 

A book that has deeply shaped me is Marilyn Frye’s The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory.
Frye is one of the most influential voices in feminist philosophy, and this slim volume has been a staple of my
teaching for many years. Frye boldly defines such fundamental feminist concepts as “oppression” and “sexism,” and discusses issues including racism in feminist movements, the role of love for women within feminism, and the often-problematic reception of women’s anger. She is a beautiful and elegant writer, with unfailing clarity and
precision in her prose. Any serious reader with an open mind, male or female, can learn from this now-classic book.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Misty Thomas-Trout ’11, Assistant Professor of Art and Design

The book that I would and will recommend to every colleague and student — even family — is Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? In the midst of a new chapter in life where I as a white woman will be raising a black child, I have found her words and insight beyond needed. This book has become a guiding tool for understanding race and how to teach both my daughters about race and racial issues and tensions. I will have my first daughter, who is white, read this book next year at age 11. Tatum covers a topic that is sometimes hard to understand, utilizes a ton of jargon and can be overwhelming. She makes it easy to enter the sensitive and tense conversation of race through her personal anecdotes and experiences. She is truly brilliant. This book needs implemented into all high school education. White people must read this book. It raises awareness to our own subconscious acts of racism. It changed my life, and I am so sad that I missed her recent lecture on campus.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Joseph Valenzano III, Chair of the Department of Communication 

Perhaps one of the most influential books in my personal and professional life has been Man’s Search for
by Viktor Frankl. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which to me is the most profound. It tells
the tale of how Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, endured through that brutal experience where he seemingly lost everything. He found that the thing that drives people is meaning and purpose, and that the one thing that cannot be taken from us is how we choose to behave or the attitude we choose to carry in any situation. For me, his journey and his conclusions hit home. They remind me why I do what I do, and they remind me also that our relationships with others and how we treat them matter a great deal. If we all worked to hold each other up, none of us would ever really fall down.    


Meredith Doench ’03, 
Lecturer of Composition, Literature and Creative Writing

it_img.jpgGreat books find their way into our hands at the precise moment we need them most. You can call it fate or a stroke of luck, but I call it magic. No other word can best describe the transformation that happened inside me when I first read Stephen King’s novel IT. 

Before this book came into my life, I had little interest in reading. I had too many other things to do — swimming, softball, soccer. I was in the ninth grade when my best friend’s older brother passed down his worn copy of IT to her. I remember balking at the size of the paperback — 1,000-plus pages. Once she told me about the characters’ fight against evil, though, I had to have my own copy.

"I found a little bit of myself in each of their stories."

One of King’s greatest assets as a writer is his ability to craft strong, multidimensional characters that leap off the page. I started the book because of my best friend, but I continued to read because I cared about and related to the seven main characters, known as the Losers Club. Each 11-year-old had a hardship to overcome, and I found a little bit of myself in each of their stories. These unlikely heroes were chosen to save Derry, Maine, from a shape-shifting evil that lurked beneath the town. As I followed their plight, a tiny seed settled inside me that only grew stronger until I realized I wanted to write. I wanted to tell stories that moved readers as much as the kids from the Losers Club moved me. I wanted to show readers that the most heroic acts sometimes come from those who aren’t necessarily celebrated in real life, and that everyone — no matter who you are — deserves a voice in literature. 

What amazing power words have. Stories like IT show us how to deal with humanity — the good, bad and ugly of it all. To me, that’s nothing short of pure magic.

Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance

Tony Talbott, Director of Advocacy, Human Rights Center 

I came across the book Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance by James Scott while I was in graduate school studying Southeast Asia. It’s about how the powerless and marginalized don’t just accept their situation and actually have a lot of ways they can fight back. It outlines many nonviolent forms of resistance, and it really opened my eyes about the complexities of “power.” Scott’s analysis still offers me insights today into the ways everyday people can resist injustice.

First Folio

Elizabeth Ann Mackay, Assistant Professor of English

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I remember hearing everyone speak with such passion and enthusiasm for this “Shakespeare” that I was curious to know more about him. My mother used to take my sister and me every week to our public library, and I have a clear memory of choosing Shakespeare’s collected works, also known as William Shakespeare’s First Folio. Of course, I couldn’t make any sense of the dialogue or the 16th-century syntax. But when I got to high school, I had awesome teachers who made Shakespeare’s plays come alive. I had an even better experience at university. I found myself enjoying these “old” texts so much more than anything else I was reading as an English major. I knew from an early age that I wanted to teach, and because my Shakespeare professor was such an amazing teacher, I found myself learning from her about how to teach early modern literature. That set me on my career path. Even though I’ve moved on to study women’s writing and other playwrights’ texts from the 16th- and 17th-centuries, it’s because of that early intrigue over Shakespeare that I’m an early modern scholar. My favorite essay that I’ve published is about The Taming of the Shrew. And, of course, the Shakespeare course at UD is one of my favorites to teach, primarily because I enjoy working with and through these plays with students, who are always helping me see them anew, through their eyes.  

Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower

Timothy Keune, 
Associate Professor of Accounting

While it is not necessarily a happy book, Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower by Cynthia Cooper had a significant impact on me. The book is about Cooper’s experience as the director of internal audit at WorldCom in the early 2000s, when she uncovered an accounting fraud. She details how she discovered the fraud and went about investigating it. More impactful is her discussion of the effect of the discovery on lower and mid-level employees in the company as well as on the town in Mississippi where the company was located. The fraud was directed from top executives but required cooperation by low-level managers. Cooper does a nice job of describing the anguish, guilt and eventual willing involvement experienced by these managers. Some were also convicted for their roles in the fraud.

“It brings into focus how everyone is accountable for their own ethical dilemma choices.”

This book had a significant impact on me for several of reasons. First, it highlights the importance of accountants within business as well as their ethical responsibilities and the ethical dilemmas they face that are distinct from those of other employees. Second, the discussion of personal impacts of the fraud and its aftermath are vivid reminders of the devastating effects that unethical choices can have on innocent bystanders. Third, it brings into focus how everyone is accountable for their own ethical dilemma choices, and that it is not an excuse to say someone told you to do it. Finally, the book highlights how one person or a small group of people can make a difference. Cooper and a small team discovered the fraud and exposed it. People do make a difference when just doing their jobs.

The Consolation of Philosophy

Rusty Baldwin, Distinguished Research Professor, UD Center for Cybersecurity & Data Intelligence

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius is  written in an engaging style as a mixture of a true story and fiction. The true part is what happens to Boethius: In the year 532, he was a high court official falsely accused of treason and thrown into prison. He wonders why “bad things happen to good people,” for he was a virtuous man who stood up for the poor and oppressed. The fiction begins when “Lady Philosophy” comes to prison to console Boethius. They discuss human nature, virtue, justice and why evil seems to win while virtue seems to go unrewarded. They discuss whether there is such a thing as divine providence or whether everything happens by chance. They discuss the concept of time and whether because God knows all things infallibly that means everything is predestined and free will is an illusion. This book asks perennial questions that have been asked since the fall of Adam and Eve, and it provides answers that are well worth considering even 1,500 years later.

The Wretched of the Earth

Faisal Chaudhry, 
Assistant Professor of Law and History

Frantz Fanon, author of The Wretched of the Earth, was a French West Indian psychiatrist writing as the 1950s and 1960s transitioned from high 19th century European imperialism to the new empires of the United States and the Soviet Union. As a social thinker, Fanon starts from the individualized psychology of domination. With its concern being to expand human freedom by interrogating why it is so easy to deny humanity to others in the name of one’s own righteousness, the book was eye-opening to me as an American from suburban New Jersey who previously understood the world as one in which “we” had either valiantly laid rest to all the depredation of the backward past or were fighting the good fight nobly in other places around the world. 

The book is just as incendiary and thought-provoking today as ever, especially given our own moment here in the United States. For The Wretched of the Earth teaches how easy it is to demonize the dominated who are the least among us. Doing so is a tremendously powerful way of blaming the decay we have seen in the United States during the last 30 to 40 years on them rather than on the most dominant in society who have redistributed political and economic power to themselves. As Fanon would concur, it is sad but all too expectable how easy it has been — in just three years’ time — to flip the staple ideology of post-war American exceptionalism (that we are a “country of immigrants”) completely on its head. Replaying a pattern Fanon would be the first to see, recasting immigrants as “wretched” has been effortless —  once the default image of “the migrant” has been made that of a person of a darker shade; once the context relating to why they are trying to migrate has been deleted; and once we have remembered to forget how the history and policy of our own country has impacted the places they are coming from.

Team of Rivals

Gov. Bob Taft, Distinguished Research Associate 

I love political biography, and my favorite is Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This book helped me understand one vital source of President Abraham Lincoln’s greatness, his practical political genius in winning over former rivals for the presidency whom he had appointed to his cabinet to unify the country. Goodwin shows how Lincoln built a governing coalition that enabled him to win the war, preserve the union and abolish slavery. I especially enjoyed learning how Lincoln won the respect and friendship of his secretary of state, William Seward, by visiting Seward often in the evenings to talk about politics and affairs of state.