The ensemble of books that arrived at the doorstep of every member of the incoming freshmen class this summer brought diverse experiences and intriguing questions. The books were My Own Country, by Abraham Verghese, Hunger, by Lan Samantha Chang, and Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. They all posed questions about human desires and drives, as well as the emotions that accompany them.
My Own Country, an autobiographical narrative by Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Abraham Verghese, details the life and emotions of the largely rural community of Johnson City, Tennessee, during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Dr. Verghese, as well as the town community, matures in the way he confronts the disease and the emotional stresses that accompany it.
Verghese explores the lives of his gay patients while questioning his own beliefs. Eventually, he expresses implicit admiration toward the “journey” of gay men into large cities to find their identity. Appropriately, he rebukes those who believe that homosexuals deserve to become infected by AIDS. Verghese showcases an acceptance of gay relationships, something that some readers may find difficult to digest.
The book’s depiction of death by the AIDS virus incites both compassion and concern in readers. Just as living the narrative taught Verghese to believe that “human life is fast and fleeting, and that moments of true safety are rare,” it urges readers to value those moments, as well as their relationships. The story conveys not only the bleakness of a human waiting to die, but also the acts of kindness that come from society during that time.
Lan Samantha Chang’s collection of short stories continues the discussion of identity, cultural assimilation, death, and intense human emotion. She takes one story, unravels it, and then repackages it in fragments that, if viewed together, coalesce back into a common story. The novella deals with the desires of the characters and often how the characters react when they fail to meet those desires. While Chang’s stories tend to cast a pessimistic light on past memories for their negative effects on relationships, the stories also represent love’s ability to find its way into those relationships.
All but two of Chang’s tales explore the characters’ abilities to assimilate into American culture. Usually, the adult characters are less eager to do so, but find that their goals are inhibited by their unwillingness to assimilate. Their children end up acquiring American culture, which typically provides a point of contention between parents and children. The stories sometimes paint culture as a barrier to success. While one character is unable to fit into music school, another is admitted to Harvard, showing that their success was more culture-based than race-based.
After examining several case studies, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers asserts that the conditions and opportunities that people receive enable their successes. Gladwell claims that, “to build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success […] with a society that provides opportunities for all.” He argues that skill is often mistaken for maturity, like in school and athletics. While age separation might be necessary in certain activities, society must not hinder the advancement of students based on the belief that those students should perform equally to people of their age levels.
Gladwell also stresses the importance of family legacy on behavior and success. He provides examples of families and cultures that have long standing practices that shape members’ behavior, explaining why Asian students score better than other races in math and science tests. He vilifies long summer vacations in America as a hindrance to retaining information, specifically for students who receive little academic stimulation in their homes during the summer.
Outliers’ message may seem bleak for students who fear that the opportunity cards might not fall correctly for them. But Gladwell emphasizes that it’s hard work and seizing opportunities that allow people to become successful. However, readers must be careful not to construe Gladwell’s message as an excuse not to support themselves in life.