Books Challenge Readers to Learn from New Experiences and Other Cultures

First in an occasional series on what U.Va. community members recommend reading this summer.

Members of the University of Virginia community regularly travel to other worlds through books that not only contribute to their academic work, but also to lifelong learning and a balanced life.

The founding director of OpenGrounds, Bill Sherman, an award-winning architect and associate vice president for research, and Janie Heath, associate nursing dean for academic programs, each recommended a nonfiction title and a novel for the soul-searching questions and scenarios the books recreate. They also told stories about pivotal moments when reading added a wonderful dimension to their lives.

Sherman suggested "The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America," by Stephen Johnson, the second in a series about how people interact and collaborate on ideas and knowledge. "It reads like a novel, but it's history," he said.

The book discusses the 18th-century natural philosopher and chemist Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen. He eventually made his way to America after his religious views got him into trouble in England. Priestley is one of several names carved on Brooks Hall at U.Va. – a sort of "Hall of Fame" of natural scientists in 1877, when the building opened as a museum of natural history.

"His experiments on the interaction of plants, animals, oxygen and carbon dioxide led to a discovery that actually still has bearing today in the way that we think about the interaction of ecosystems and issues of climate change," said Sherman, who focuses on sustainability in building design and human interaction with the environment.

The book concludes with Priestley's conversations with Thomas Jefferson about what the curriculum should be for a new university in the United States.

Sherman said the next OpenGrounds e-newsletter will solicit recommendations of books and articles for a list to be posted on the program's website. OpenGrounds participants have begun donating books to the OpenGrounds studio in the Corner Building on West Main Street that opened its doors in March. [link: to press release]

Another book Sherman said transported him in space and time was a novel, "Night Train to Lisbon," by Swiss philosopher Pascal Mercier. The story follows a Swiss Latin teacher who encounters someone on a bridge and obtains a book that leads him to abandon his mundane daily life and catch the night train to Lisbon, opening up an entirely new world of experience and philosophical reflection.

A member of the School of Architecture faculty since 1994, Sherman described a summer in his early 20s when the value of reading impressed him. Working as a carpenter on a New England island, he would come home exhausted and in the evenings read Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain."

Called one of the most influential German novels of the 20th century, the novel takes place in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Alps prior to World War II. "It's an exploration of time and how the workings of the mind fill the space we inhabit with reflection, even if our world shrinks," he said.

Janie Heath's love of reading came late, when she was a graduate nursing student. Seeing that she was spending all her time on health-care literature, Heath's mentor advised her that she needed balance in her life and handed her a John Grisham novel.

Reading for pleasure continues to help her maintain balance, and Grisham remains a favorite, she said.

In addition to the drama and courtroom dynamics of Grisham's legal thrillers, Heath likes the novels in which he tells other stories "with powerful meanings," she said, including his latest, "Calico Joe." It's a baseball story, but she was more interested in what happened off the field than on it, she said. A family struggles with a broken father-son relationship and learns how to find forgiveness.

Forgiveness might not come so easily in the other book Heath recommends, a nonfiction title, "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," written by journalist Anne Fadiman, Yale University writer-in-residence. The book details the poor communication between the medical personnel treating a Hmong child with epilepsy and her parents, immigrants from Laos who were resettled to Merced, Calif., after the Vietnam War. The title refers to a Hmong phrase that describes what the parents thought was happening to their child.

"I read it and couldn't put it down," she said. The author balances the views of pediatricians and parents, who both wanted the best for the child, said Heath, previously a critical-care nurse whose research focuses on smoking cessation.

"It was eye-opening. I could see myself as a nurse, and I would've helped like the health-care professionals did," she said.

Heath is planning a program for nursing and medical students to improve health care for refugee populations in Charlottesville. Her curriculum for learning cultural competence using a blend of practices will include reading "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," she said.

– by Anne Bromley