Academic First Year Experiences

Nominated Titles: the 2017-2018 Freshman Common Reading

If you'd like to nominate a title for CSUN's 2018-2019 Freshman Common Reading, please read the selection criteria and then fill out our brief online nomination form. For more information, read about our nomination process

Members of the CSUN community (students, faculty, staff, and alums) are invited to submit their opinion about any of the nominated titles to the Freshman Common Reading blog. The blog is moderated, which means your submission requires approval before it is published.

The following table lists the titles nominated for CSUN's 2017-2018 Freshman Common Reading, beginning with the winning title:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The cover displays the title and the author's name in thick black capital letters against a white background.Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. 2015. 152 pages. The winning title for 2017-2018.

Nominated by Jamie Johnson. 

Publisher's description: "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. Americans have built an empire on the idea of 'race,' a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden? Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son."  (See

Slate review by Jack Hamilton: "I found myself thinking a lot about teaching and teachers while reading Between the World and Me, and not just because I’m one myself, at a university founded by one of America’s most famous slaveholders. I first read The Fire Next Time as a junior in high school; it was pushed on me by an eccentric but thrilling English teacher who told me that it was the greatest essay ever written. I still remember him vividly, because he was the kind of teacher who made me read books like that and who talked about writing in that way. He died a number of years ago, but I wish I could give Coates’ book to him. Instead I’ll give it to my own students and, if the time comes, to my own children as well."

Jamie adds: "This book will engage freshmen to reflect upon the struggles people face overcome oppression and how we seek a sense of belonging in our communities. The topics are timely to what is happening across the country and college campuses and will add to the ongoing conversation about diversity and equality." 

Selection Committee members praised the book as "timely," "pertinent," and "powerfully written."  A student member noted that it "brings a very important topic to the table."

Between the World and Me was the 2015 winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction.

Coates has written extensively for the Atlantic Monthly (see  The book takes up the conversation about race in America where James Baldwin stopped in The Fire Next Time.

Oviatt Library owns this book.

In a chaotic urban landscape, a figure climbs up a rickety structure housing abandoned campers.Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. 2011; paperback 2012. 400 pages. One of five finalists for 2017-2018.

Nominated by Marjie Seagoe.

Marjie says:  "Virtual reality (VR) movies such as Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix, and The Hunger Games have  become increasingly common. Just this summer the VR game Pokemon Go is so popular that people are falling over cliffs to catch Pokemon! Google already tours the great wonders of the world.  Think of the possibilities; a quadriplegic wants to climb a mountain and can, with VR. Want to travel to Mars or beyond, but worried that the travel time is lengthy and the cost is exorbitant? People can use VR and experience all this and more in the comfort of their easy chair. This book is about a world where people live primarily through VR with very little human contact. They move around their galaxy like we move around our houses. I think this book would be a hit with freshman readers as their worlds are increasingly in computer land. I think they will connect with the characters and laugh and cry along the way."

Review from the New York Times (excerpt): "With its Pac-Man-style cover graphics and vintage Atari mind-set Ready Player One certainly looks like a genre item. But Mr. Cline is able to incorporate his favorite toys and games into a perfectly accessible narrative. He sets it in 2044, when there aren’t many original Duran Duran fans still afoot, and most students of 1980s trivia are zealous kids. They are interested in that time period because a billionaire inventor, James Halliday, died and left behind a mischievous legacy. Whoever first cracks Halliday’s series of ’80s-related riddles, clues and puzzles that are included in a film called “Anorak’s Invitation” will inherit his fortune......" 

More information: Steven Spielberg is evidently making a movie version of Ready Player One.

Oviatt Library owns this book.

Against a starry sky, crossed daggers hover ominously over a tent city partially protected by a crumbling stone wall.Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. 2014; paperback 2015. 354 pages. One of five finalists for 2017-2018.

Nominated by Jamie Johnson. 

Review by Susan Moritz, Library Journal: "Onstage at a Toronto theater, an aging movie star drops dead while performing the title role in King Lear. As the other cast members share a drink at the lobby bar before heading into the snowy night, none can know what horrors await them: "Of all of them at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city." The Shakespearean tragedy unfolds into a real-life calamity just before the entire world is overtaken by a catastrophic flu pandemic that will kill off the vast majority of the population. The narrative is organized around several figures present at the theater that night, and the tale travels back and forth in time, from the years before the pandemic through the following 20 years in a world without government, electricity, telecommunications, modern medicine, or transportation. In this lawless and dangerous new reality, a band of actors and musicians performs Shakespeare for the small communities that have come into existence in the otherwise abandoned landscape. In this unforgettable, haunting, and almost hallucinatory portrait of life at the edge, those who remain struggle to retain their basic humanity and make connections with the vanished world through art, memory, and remnants of popular culture. VERDICT: This is a brilliantly constructed, highly literary, postapocalyptic page-turner, and should be a breakout novel for Mandel."

Jamie adds: This is an engaging novel about survival and keeping your humanity through devastation in a post-apocalyptic world. It is thought-provoking and will make freshmen reflect and question their own relationships and how they would handle a fame-obsessed culture being overtaken by a flu pandemic. The book contains significant issues such as: What is surviving? (how art plays a role) and Dystopian culture/humanity (its flaws and triumphs). I enjoyed that it focuses on individual characters and ideas of nostalgia, memory, celebrity and art. The narrative is told through parallel stories, spanning 20+ years, about diverse characters, and we get to see how they changed from the pre- to the post-apocalyptic world.

This book is one of the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) titles for 2017-2018.

Oviatt Library owns this book

Two miniature football players--one made of red plastic, the other of yellow--face off at an imaginary scrimmage line.Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond. 2014. 172 pages. One of five finalists for 2017-2018.

Nominated by Lindsay Hansen.

Lindsay says: Steve Almond, a lifelong football (and specifically Raiders) fan, wrote this book as a response to the NFL and American football. In a breezy tone, he discusses the problems with football: concussions and CTE, racism, sexism, and primarily, the rampant profits that the NFL makes on the backs of its players and through subsidies and tax loopholes.

Boston Globe review by Bill Littlefield: "The strengths of this polemic come from the insights Almond's recent conversion has inspired. His contention that football has 'become the national pastime . . . because it reflects the bloodthirsty id that's always defined American identity' may be a stretch. (Are there no other nations characterized by 'bloodthirsty ids?') But it's a stretch bound to initiate intriguing conversations as well as bar fights."

Lindsay adds: "Almond does not offer any solutions but encourages readers to think about what they are supporting when they watch football."

More information: "Making the Case 'Against Football'": review-essay by Linda Holmes for NPR's Monkey See.

Oviatt Library does now own this book.

A woman floats gracefully, face-down in an immense ocean that resembles a starry sky.Everything I Never Told You  by Celeste Ng. 2014; paperback 2015. About 300 pages. One of five finalists for 2017-2018.

Nominated by Jamie Johnson. 

Carol Haggas, Booklist: "A teenage girl goes missing and is later found to have drowned in a nearby lake, and suddenly a once tight-knit family unravels in unexpected ways. As the daughter of a college professor and his stay-at-home wife in a small Ohio town in the 1970s, Lydia Lee is already unwittingly part of the greater societal changes going on all around her. But Lydia suffers from pressure that has nothing to do with tuning out and turning on. Her father is an American born of first-generation Chinese immigrants, and his ethnicity, and hers, make them conspicuous in any setting. Her mother is white, and their interracial marriage raises eyebrows and some intrusive charges of miscegenation. More troubling, however, is her mother's frustration at having given up medical school for motherhood, and how she blindly and selfishly insists that Lydia follow her road not taken. The cracks in Lydia's perfect-daughter foundation grow slowly but erupt suddenly and tragically, and her death threatens to destroy her parents and deeply scar her siblings. Tantalizingly thrilling, Ng's emotionally complex debut novel captures the tension between cultures and generations with the deft touch of a seasoned writer. Ng will be one to watch."

Jamie adds: "A beautifully written novel..., this book focuses on Lydia and her immediate family diving deep into the lives of each character. The story unfolds from the perspective of each member of the family, as they understand it. Freshmen will be able to identify with Lydia and her brother Nath (who coincidentally is about to start college) and the family as they struggles to find themselves. The characters are well developed, plot is easy to follow, and writing is nuanced. The author carefully weaves in themes of love, deception, race, identity, prejudice, and gender into the growth and development of this family. Because of the issues each member faces, I can imagine meaningful discussions that are relevant to freshmen students."

This book is one of the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) Big Read titles for 2017-2018.

Oviatt Library owns this book.

A violin, a bow, and spare change are pictured on the cover of THE FIDDLER IN THE SUBWAY.The Fiddler in the Subway
by Gene Weingarten.
 2010. 384 pages. 

Nominated by Yvonne Zimmerman. 

From "Simply the best storyteller around, Weingarten describes the world as you think it is before revealing how it actually is—in narratives that are by turns hilarious, heartwarming, and provocative, but always memorable. Millions of people know the title piece about violinist Joshua Bell, which originally began as a stunt: What would happen if you put a world-class musician outside a Washington, D.C., subway station to play for spare change? Would anyone even notice? The answer was no. Weingarten’s story went viral, becoming a widely referenced lesson about life lived too quickly. Other classic stories—the one about “The Great Zucchini,” a wildly popular but personally flawed children’s entertainer; the search for the official “Armpit of America”; a profile of the typical American nonvoter—all of them reveal as much about their readers as they do their subjects."

Yvonne adds: "This book... will engage freshmen in its design of brief, factual narratives that explore topics of the depths of human emotion....I did not want to put this book down because it was written so well, and it will engage all freshmen because of its diverse subject matter....From voting in America to domestic and international threats and the story behind works such as the Hardy Boys series, this book will resonate with all readers in some way." 

Oviatt Library does now own this book.

The Grand Tetons loom over a lone red barn; an even smaller inset picture shows someone hiking through the snow.Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons by Mary Jean Baptiste. 2014. 272 pages. 

Nominated by Marlene Pearson. 

Marlene's description: "Baptiste writes about daring to realize her life-long dream of moving to the Rockies. She leaves a fifteen-year marriage and her Portuguese family in Massachusetts to take a job as a wildlife biologist for Grand Teton National Park. She is both poet and naturalist, describing her new surroundings and life.  Those she works with range from college students spending a season in the national park to an array of naturalists and wildlife biologists studying raptors, ducks, grizzly bears, elk, and moose. One day she is surveying big sheep on Moose Basin; another day she is baiting a bear trap. "  

Marlene adds: "This book is engaging and inviting. I see Baptiste's writing as an impetus for our university students to move toward and achieve their dreams. The many descriptions of her adventures can encourage freshmen to grow intellectually. She discusses writers from John Muir to Louisa May Alcott, among others."  

Author's website:

Oviatt Library does now own this book.

Illustration shows a small stick figure standing by as a roped dinosaur is lowered towards a deep hole from which wriggling tentacles protrude.What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. 2014. 320 pages. Illustrated.

Nominated by Nicole Dickson. 

From Goodreads: "Randall Munroe left NASA in 2005 to start up his hugely popular site XKCD, 'a web comic of romance, sarcasm, math and language' which offers a witty take on the world of science and geeks. .... Every now and then, Munroe would get emails asking him to arbitrate a science debate. 'My friend and I were arguing about what would happen if a bullet got struck by lightning, and we agreed that you should resolve it . . . ' He liked these questions so much that he started up What If

  • If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive?
  • How dangerous is it, really, to be in a swimming pool in a thunderstorm?
  • If we hooked turbines to people exercising in gyms, how much power could we produce?
  • What would happen if the moon went away?

"In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, studded with memorable cartoons and infographics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. Far more than a book for geeks, WHAT IF: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel much the smarter for having read."

More: Epic Climate Cartoon Goes Viral.... NPR, 14 Sep 2016.

Oviatt Library owns this book in digital format (for CSUN users only).

As the sun sets, man stands alone on a hillock; behind him stand rocky, barren mountains washed in the red light of the setting sun..Disgrace: A Novel by J. M. Coetzee. 1999; paperback 2009. 220 pages. 

Nominated by Donna Stone. 

Donna says: "In this short novel set in post-Apartheid South Africa, a university professor loses his job after seducing a student. He moves to the country to live with his daughter, and a series of incidents, some horrifying, change his life completely. Written in clear, gripping prose; no padding or wasted words." 

Donna adds: "The subjects of race, justice, the power difference between men and women and blacks and whites, rape, and even the ethical treatment of animals are ongoing topics fostering disagreement and discussion in our society. Even though the book is set in South Africa, these issues should resonate with our students.

More information: John Malkovich stars in the 2008 movie version of Disgrace.

Oviatt Library owns this book.

Two ghostly faces gaze at one another above a distant view of a bridge in New York City." alt="Two ghostly faces gaze at one another above a distant view of a bridge in New York City.A Tale of Two Citizens: A Novel
 by Elyce Wakerman. 2015. 376 pages.

Nominated by Lisa Riccomini this year and by Mona Houghton in 2015.  

From Amazon"It is 1929. At home, economic depression and dust storms ravage America, and abroad, the goose step of Nazism is intensifying. Widespread fear of 'the other' has reached a fever pitch. Against this tumultuous backdrop, two families share the spotlight in this sweeping saga: the Himelbaums of Poland, and the Browns of Iowa. All Harry Himelbaum wants is to live somewhere happy, and to send for the wife and child he must deny having. But Will Brown stands in the way. Will is a young, zealously patriotic Iowa lawyer, who has dedicated himself to staunchly upholding the nation’s laws and keeping his America pure. Little does he expect that his childhood sweetheart and new wife, Barbara, would form a romantic attachment for Harry, the man he’s sworn to keep out. Based on the true story of the author’s father, this heart-wrenching clash of love and loyalties is a picture of an America torn between being a symbol of hope for immigrants and a proud nation fighting to re-create itself."

Lisa adds:  "It has strong connections to today's immigration issues, laws, fear of the other, discrimination, etc. It is also a strong history lesson important for today. There are obviously lots of connections to U100 and many other freshman classes: decision-making, ethics, relationships, diversity, dreams and opportunities, creative and critical thinking...lots!

More information:

Oviatt Library owns this book, and so does Academic First Year Experiences (inside UGS on the Roof, Sierra Hall, 4th floor). 

A wistful girl looks out through the window of a train's door.Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Cline. 2013. 278 pages. 2016-2017 finalist.

Nominated by Catherine Givertz this year and by Irene Clark in 2015. 

Publisher's description: "Between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?  As a young Irish immigrant, Vivian Daly was one such child, sent by rail from New York City to an uncertain future a world away. Returning east later in life, Vivian leads a quiet, peaceful existence on the coast of Maine, the memories of her upbringing rendered a hazy blur. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer knows that a community-service position helping an elderly widow clean out her attic is the only thing keeping her out of juvenile hall. But as Molly helps Vivian sort through her keepsakes and possessions, she discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they appear. A Penobscot Indian who has spent her youth in and out of foster homes, Molly is also an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. Moving between contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, Orphan Train is a powerful tale of upheaval and resilience, second chances, and unexpected friendship."  

Catherine adds: "This book discusses the historical and current issues with America's foster care system. "Orphan Train" will engage freshmen and encourage critical thinking through the two main characters and their struggles. Some topics included in the book: family issues (biological and foster), expectations of others, sexual assault, abandonment, poverty, importance of education, laws & community service, child labor, and immigration. "

Oviatt Library does now own this book, and so does Academic First Year Experiences.

Cover shows a red Ford Econoline van in a parking lot next to lush greenery.Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom by Ken Ilguanas. 2013. 320 pages.

Nominated by Catherine Givertz this year and by Debbi Mercado in 2014. 

Amazon synopsis:  In this frank and witty memoir, Ken Ilgunas lays bare the existential terror of graduating from the University of Buffalo with $32,000 of student debt. Ilgunas set himself an ambitious mission: get out of debt as quickly as possible. Inspired by the frugality and philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, Ilgunas undertook a 3-year transcontinental journey, working in Alaska as a tour guide, garbage picker, and night cook to pay off his student loans before hitchhiking home to New York.

Debt-free, Ilgunas then enrolled in a master’s program at Duke University, determined not to borrow against his future again. He used the last of his savings to buy himself a used Econoline van and outfitted it as his new dorm. The van, stationed in a campus parking lot, would be more than an adventure—it would be his very own “Walden on Wheels.”

Freezing winters, near-discovery by campus police, and the constant challenge of living in a confined space would test Ilgunas’s limits and resolve in the two years that followed. What had begun as a simple mission would become an enlightening and life-changing social experiment. Walden on Wheels offers a spirited and pointed perspective on the dilemma faced by those who seek an education but who also want to, as Thoreau wrote, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Oviatt Library owns this book.

The cover depicts the earth bristling with crowded skyscrapers interlaced with freeways and circled by jet planes.Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation by Edward Humes. 2016. 384 pages. 

Nominated by Catherine Givertz.

Kirkus review: "The story of the massive, complex global system that transports people and things from door to door, day and night."

Author's description: "I used to brag about having the shortest commute in town: downstairs for coffee, back up to my office to write. How wrong I was. My daily commute is really more on the order of 3 million miles—without ever leaving the house. And so is yours. From field to broker to port to factory to store to me, my morning coffee blend traveled enough miles to circle the globe—and that’s just the bag of beans. Add the cream, the globally sourced parts of my coffeemaker, the filter, the water and the electricity to power it, and my java has circled the earth a couple times before my first sip. My smartphone is even more well traveled, and the parts of my car have seen enough mileage for a trip to the moon before the odometer leaves zero—about 250,000 miles. Unprecedented amounts of transportation are embedded in every trip we take and every click we make. Just keeping the average American family moving, eating and working is like building the Great Pyramid, the Hoover Dam, and the Empire State Building all in a day. Every day."  

Catherine adds: "Humes does a great job using research to ask questions and discuss possible solutions to America's unhealthy desire for fast transportation and goods."  

Oviatt Library does now own this book, and so does Academic First Year Experiences (x6535).

A rustic wooden chair is set on a small plywood platform placed on a green lawn and backed by an immense, cloudy sky.This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, ed. by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman. 2006; paperback 2007. 259 pages. 

Nominated by Cheryl Spector. 

Publisher's Weekly review: "In the 1950s, the Edward R. Murrow–hosted radio program This I Believe prompted Americans to briefly explain their most cherished beliefs, be they religious or purely pragmatic. Since the program's 2005 renaissance as a weekly NPR segment, Allison (the host) and Gediman (the executive producer) have collected some of the best essays from This I Believe then and now....[this book] is distinguished from the 1950s version in soliciting submissions from ordinary Americans from all walks of life. These make up some of the book's most powerful and memorable moments, from the surgeon whose illiterate mother changed his early life with faith and a library card to the English professor whose poetry helped him process a traumatic childhood event. And in one of the book's most unusual essays, a Burmese immigrant confides that he believes in feeding monkeys on his birthday because a Buddhist monk once prophesied that if he followed this ritual, his family would prosper. There are luminaries here, too, including Gloria Steinem, Warren Christopher, Helen Keller, Isabel Allende, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike and (most surprisingly, considering the book's more liberal bent) Newt Gingrich."

Cheryl adds: "Short-short essays in which both famous and otherwise unknown authors offer their personal philosophies. Something for everyone. NPR has audio recordings of many of these essays, as well as a blog offering relevant essays addressing contemporary events."  

This I Believe website:; includes a useful page with Educator Resources.

Oviatt Library does now own a digital copy of this book.  Academic First Year Experiences has a paperback copy (x6535).

Against a pale yellow ground, the monochrome red drawing of a woman's head with flowing hair but no facial features is partly obscured by turquoise letters spelling out the book's title and author.Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti. 2016. 224 pages. 

Nominated by Susana Marcelo. 

New York Times review by Dayna Tortorici:  "Sex Object is Valenti’s first memoir, and it sets out to tell the story of how women manage the expectation that they exist as vehicles for male desire first and as human beings second, and only once the primary aim is achieved. An ambitious person, young Valenti took the perfectionist’s course: 'If I was going to be a sex object, I was going to be the best sex object I could be.' But the real story of Sex Object is one of burnout."

More information: review by Lauren Duca in The Nation: "The title alone of Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object: A Memoir invites backlash. Even without the context of Valenti’s career as a feminist writer, it’s a bold statement, almost deliberately soliciting the dig that will follow: So, you think you’re sexy? She does, actually, if inconsistently, but that’s not the point. By welcoming such a reaction, Valenti urges us to get back to probing the foundational issue of objectification. In other words, if you think Valenti calling herself an 'object' is a compliment, well, you just don’t get it."

Susana adds: "The frank, conversational tone and intimate events of the author's experience will speak to many students of various ages and cultures and experiences."  

Oviatt Library does now own this book.