Books of the Year educate beyond polarizing politics

First year students will have difficulty dodging the Books of the Year, especially if they are enrolled in any class taught by UAA professor Anne Jache.

“I don’t think I have had a time when I wasn’t able to take one of those books and apply it to intro to sociology,” Anne Jache, who teaches sociology and genealogy courses, said.

The Books of the Year program began in 2006, as part of a Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues. Faculty from APU and UAA decide on a challenging topic then choose two books that explore the topic. The initiative has become a model for other schools throughout the nation.

Authors Charles Wohlforth and Robert Rosenburg have visited UAA because of the program, and 2008/09’s Alaska Native Q & A was written expressly for this purpose.

Students in the resident halls have decorated their floors based on a year’s theme.

Jache recalls a student who used depictions of the burqa in The Swallows of Kabul as inspiration for a First Friday. The novel, written by Yamina Khadra, challenged Jache’s own assumptions.

“Just after 9/11, this hadn’t been an issue yet, and most feminists considered the veil oppressive. But in exploring some of the images of the veil, we saw how in some ways the veil could offer freedom.”

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She recalled a scene in The Swallows of Kabul where a woman laughs with her husband; the police cannot see her face, so they beat only her husband. In this case, she has freedom of expression.

“She can do all kinds of things with her face that those in western culture can’t,” Jache said.

Jache said that she loved the program because it encourages the entire community to address a topic that is pervasive, but that may not be commonly discussed. “Everyone is reading the same book so that we can talk about themes that are hard to talk about,” Jache said.

The program also gives students a valuable tool. Jache’s former student used the program as the starting point for a First Friday. Students have also used it as a source for Student Showcase, Dance recitals, and Undergraduate Research.

The books of the Year are carefully selected by a Steering Committee. This year’s committee included six professors, all in distinct fields, from APU Biology and Math Professor Roman Dial, to UAA Justice Professor Deb Periman.

This year’s books:

Reading the preface of David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America, a quote from Voltaire comes to mind: “A long dispute means that both parties are wrong.” Exactly how to solve the issue of inequality in America was being debated before America even formed.

But Shipler, following Voltaire, refuses polarizing views for the sake of entertainment. Instead, he held in-depth interviews with hundreds of people and spent years analyzing institutional data.

“I have tried to see it with clear eyes, not through an ideological lens. Indeed, devout conservatives and impassioned liberals will bothered by this portrait of poverty, at least I hope so, for the reality I discovered does not fit neatly into anyone’s political agenda. I want to challenge and undermine longstanding assumptions at both ends of the spectrum,” Shipler writes in his preface.

It may be common knowledge that social aid programs, foreign and domestic, are in need of a tune-up. For example, in determining the poverty line, the Census Bureau still uses a model formed by the Social Security Administration in 1964. That model was based on the average household’s spending habits in 1955. At that time, the family spent 1/3 of their income on food. Today, 1/10 of their budget goes to food. The modern family isn’t getting the same amount of food; they’re simply spending more on bills. The Census though, and every law resultant of it, does not recognize this reality.

Michael Lewis’s The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, similarly exposes surprising politics that many of us would have never known. Like Shipler, Lewis is hardly an armchair theorist. When he was 24, Lewis’s job was to distribute investment advice. He had no clue, yet left three years later much richer.

“The whole thing still strikes me as totally preposterous.”

Lewis wrote of the experience in Liar’s Poker, 21 years ago.

“I expected readers of the future would be appalled that, back in 1986, the CEO of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million as he ran the business into the ground. I expected them to gape in wonder at the story of Howie Rubin, the Salomon mortgage bond trader, who had moved to Merrill Lynch and promptly lost $250 million. I expected them to be shocked that, once upon a time on Wall Street, the CEOs had only the vaguest idea of the complicated risks their bond traders were running,” Lewis writes.

With Wall Street’s latest impulsion, Lewis hopes the public will become informed so that Wall Street’s tendency to reward incompetency stops.