Essential reading for the humanities: 3 books recommended by Penn faculty

Looking for new titles for your TBR (to be read) list? We asked the instructors of our upcoming spring courses for the books they were most excited to share with students. Their suggestions included a poetic exploration of the urban environment, a masterful meditation on death and morality, and a joyful, justice-minded reclamation of museum space.

Read on for book recommendations from instructors of literature, philosophy, and art. Whether you are currently enrolled in our Ivy League online courses or curious about what we have to offer, you’ll have something to learn from these must-read texts.

Harryette Mullen, Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary

Harryette Mullen is a contemporary poet and professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. According to Laynie Browne, poet and instructor of CRWR 2010: Poetry Workshop, Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary serves as an excellent point of entry to Mullen’s substantial body of work. “I recommend this book to anyone interested in poetry, walking, and public space,” adds Browne. “These tiny poems explore complex intersections of culture and meetings and collisions between the human and the more than human world.”

Offered in the spring 1 term (Jan 18 – Mar 14, 2024), CRWR 2010: Poetry Workshop introduces students to the craft by exploring and discussing imagery, structure, rhythm, and other elements of poetry in work such as Urban Tumbleweed. For a preview, you can watch a video from the course: an interview with Harryette Mullen featuring Laynie Browne, Penn alum and UCLA PhD candidate Kaliyah Dorsey, and Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing Al Filreis.

Penn LPS Online poetry lovers may also like to know that Harryette Mullen is a Kelly Writers House Fellow this spring. Mullen will give an in-person reading on Monday, April 1; later, a recording will become available for streaming.

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

According to the description for ETHC 2000: Ethics & Society, philosophy has been described as "the attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers." Whether you plan to enroll in this spring 2 course or are simply curious about the topics and materials you might encounter in a foundational course on ethical reasoning, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair of Philosophy Errol Lord recommends The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. “It's a timeless meditation on the meaning of life through grappling with death,” says Lord. “More specifically, it is about the relationship between life's meaning and what philosopher Mark Johnston calls the 'the large-scale deficiencies of human life'—namely, our material fragility and guaranteed death.”

While The Death of Ivan Ilyich is not a work of academic philosophy, Lord considers the fictional tale to be one of the best explorations of these philosophical themes. As a novella, it is also substantially shorter than Tolstoy’s better-known titles such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace—an excellent length to delve into tricky questions of moral philosophy in time to discuss them as a class.

Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room

A new addition to the Penn LPS Online roster and the Certificate in Social Difference, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, SDEI 2600: Inequity in Arts & Design: Re-Presenting History explores the history of social injustice through the lens of contemporary art. Instructor Heather Moqtaderi is the founder and artistic director of Past Present Projects, where she curates and organizes contemporary art exhibitions and programs that bring together material culture, history, and contemporary artistic practice. The course, which does not require prior knowledge of art terminology, provides the vocabulary and frameworks you need to understand how art can challenge or perpetuate inequality.

Appropriately for an art-centered course, Moqtaderi’s recommendation is a visual feast: published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room guides readers on a tour of an exhibition at the Met via sumptuous photographs and a detailed text introduction by its curators; it also includes an essay by Michelle D. Commander, deputy director for National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Protocol and Response, a graphic novella by Afrofuturist artist John Jennings. “The exhibition embodies the spirit of acknowledging the history of slavery, segregation, and unequal treatment of Black Americans, while also creating space for restorative justice, joy, and speculative futures,” Moqtaderi explains. “Riffing on the traditional Eurocentric period room, this contemporary exhibition references the true story of a 19th century free Black neighborhood in New York City that was leveled to create Central Park, and imagines new futures for those displaced community members.”

Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room is available to read online.

These three exciting book recommendations offer just a taste of the readings and discussion you might discover in our spring courses. View our course calendar to see the full range of Ivy League online courses available in any upcoming term.

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