Previous Reading Projects

The Newcomb-Tulane College Reading Project has been a staple of the first year for over twenty years. Click through to read about some of the other amazing texts read by our students throughout the years.

2022: Parable of the Sower

Author: Octavia E. Butler

When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others’ emotions.

Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith . . . and a startling vision of human destiny.

2021: Transcendent Kingdom

Author: Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi's stunning follow-up to her acclaimed national best seller, Homegoing, is a powerful, raw, intimate, deeply layered novel about a Ghanian family in Alabama. Transcendent Kingdom is a beautifully written narrative centered around a family of Ghanaian immigrants living in the contemporary South.

The novel follows the main character, Gifty, a PhD candidate studying neuroscience, on her quest to make sense of the hardships she sees in her daily life through her own academic pursuits. Transcendent Kingdom tells a story of resilience and self-authorship, all while speaking to larger themes of race, mental health and wellbeing, family, spirituality, academic scholarship, and loss, largely within the context of higher education. Gyasi’s approach enthralls readers and inspires us all to consider what drives our own pursuits in life.

2020: The Yellow House: A Memoir

Author: Sarah Broom

In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East and built her world inside of it. It was the height of the Space Race and the neighborhood was home to a major NASA plant―the postwar optimism seemed assured. Widowed, Ivory Mae remarried Sarah’s father Simon Broom; their combined family would eventually number twelve children. But after Simon died, six months after Sarah’s birth, the Yellow House would become Ivory Mae’s thirteenth and most unruly child.

A book of great ambition, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house's entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser-known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure. Located in the gap between the “Big Easy” of tourist guides and the New Orleans in which Broom was raised, The Yellow House is a brilliant memoir of place, class, race, the seeping rot of inequality, and the internalized shame that often follows. It is a transformative, deeply moving story from an unparalleled new voice of startling clarity, authority, and power.

2019: Vengeance

Author: Zachary Lazar

Zachary Lazar’s powerful and important novel was inspired by a passion play, The Life of Jesus Christ, he witnessed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. As someone who writes “fiction, nonfiction, sometimes a hybrid of both,” the narrator of Vengeance, a character much like Lazar himself, tries to accurately view a world he knows is “beyond the limits of my small understanding.” In particular, he tries to unravel the truth behind the supposed crime of an inmate he meets and befriends, Kendrick King, who is serving a life sentence at Angola for murder.

As the narrator attempts to sort out what happened in King’s life—paying visits to his devoted mother, his estranged young daughter and her mother, his girlfriend, his brother, and his cousin—the writer’s own sense of identity begins to feel more and more like a fiction. He is one of the “free people” while Kendrick, who studies theology and philosophy, will never get his only wish, expressed plainly as “I just need to get out of here.” The dichotomy between their lives forces the narrator to confront the violence in his own past, and also to reexamine American notions of guilt and penance, racial bias, and the inherent perversity of punitive justice.

2018: Beartown

Author: Fredrick Backman

Beartown is a dazzling, profound novel about a small town with a big dream—and the price required to make it come true. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys. Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

2017: Between the World and Me

Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me is a letter to the author’s teenaged son about the feelings, symbolism and realities associated with being black in the United States. Newcomb-Tulane College, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Office of Academic Equity, the Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching, and the President’s Commission on Race and Diversity are proud to serve as co-sponsors of this year’s selection.

2016: Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture

Author: Kate Harding

In Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It, Kate Harding combines in-depth research with an engaging voice to make the case that twenty-first-century America supports rapists more effectively than it supports victims. Drawing on real-world examples of what has become known as "rape culture"—from politicos' revealing gaffes to institutional failures in higher education and the military—Harding offers ideas and suggestions for how we, as a society, can take sexual violence much more seriously without compromising the rights of the accused. She also demonstrates that rape culture has a negative impact on everyone—not just victims of sexual assault, and not just women.

2015: Men We Reaped

Author: Jesmyn Ward

Men We Reaped, is a critically acclaimed memoir by National Book Award-winning author and Tulane professor Jesmyn Ward. With vivid prose, Ward examines the lives and untimely deaths of five young men she was close to, including her beloved brother. Her own story provides a poignant counterpoint: a private school education funded by her mother's employer eventually led her to Stanford, two graduate degrees, and literary acclaim. Yet she remains haunted by the memory of these men, and by the role that poverty and racism played in their fates. The work was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by The New York Times, NPR, and Time magazine, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.

2014: Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children

Author: Sarah Carr

Hope Against Hope is a riveting, factual look at the controversial reinvention of the New Orleans school system in the aftermath of Katrina and the levee failures. Award-winning education reporter Sarah Carr spent a full year shadowing rookie teacher Aidan Kelly, veteran principal Mary Laurie, and high school student Geraldlynn Stewart and her family. Their personal stories add depth to the national debate over school reform, and also provide an intimate look at the specific challenges faced by New Orleans charter schools. The Philadelphia Inquirer described it as “an important book about issues facing urban districts everywhere."

2013: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Author: Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in an astounding percentage of the African-American community being warehoused in prisons or trapped in a permanent, second-class status — denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. Since its publication in 2010, the book has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year; been dubbed the “secular bible of a new social movement” by numerous commentators; and has led to consciousness-raising efforts in universities nationwide.

2012: Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans

Author: Dan Baum

Nine Lives was written when Dam Baum, assigned to cover Hurricane Katrina by The New Yorker, grew “frustrated by having to focus so much on the disaster and its aftermath.”  He decided instead to celebrate “the most interesting thing about New Orleans” – its people.  Through telling the life stories of nine unique New Orleanians from different neighborhoods, the author paints a fascinating portrait that Susan Larson called “One of the most moving -- and riveting -- books ever written about the rich and complicated life we live here.” (Times-Picayune, 2009).

2011: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author: Rebecca Skloot

This award-winning bestseller tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, also known as "HeLa" to scientists.   Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.  Her cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.

2010: Zeitoun

Author: Dave Eggers

Zeitoun chronicles the Katrina saga of a Syrian-American contractor who stayed behind during the storm. With his wife and children safely evacuated, Abdulrahman Zeitoun became a hero in a canoe in the days following the levee failures, ferrying strangers to higher ground and feeding pets that neighbors had left behind.  But instead of earning the respect of the military forces that had been sent to the city, he aroused their suspicion. Arrested on false charges, he was turned over to the Kafkaesque improvised justice system that sprang up in Katrina's wake-- a system that refused to allow him even a phone call to his wife.  Eggers spent three years working with the Zeitoun family to tell their story. The result is a riveting real-life drama, rendered in heartbreaking detail.

2009: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Author: Junot Díaz

The 2009 book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award for best novel of 2007. It chronicles the painfully awkward adolescence of an overweight Dominican-American teenager, a hopeless romantic who nurses his frequently broken heart with heavy doses of sci-fi and fantasy. Stuck between two cultures—and saddled with a nasty family curse—Oscar struggles to find his place in the world, with results alternately humorous and heartbreaking. In his New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani wrote that The Brief Wondrous Life is "so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets 'Star Trek' meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West."

2008: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Author: Mohsin Hamid

2008's book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist Mohsin Hamid, marked the first time that a work of fiction was chosen for the Tulane Reading Project. Hamid's engaging prose and page-turning plot leave the reader pondering themes of national identity and prejudice, American hubris, and the immigrant experience in the post-9/11 world. His protagonist, a young Princeton-educated Pakistani, challenges the "us versus them" mentality that has become so prevalent in American culture. Students explored the book through a series of events including a lecture by author Mohsin Hamid, a performance by Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah, and a screening of the acclaimed film Persepolis.

2007: Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Author: Elizabeth Kolbert

Based on a series of articles written for The New Yorker, Field Notes tackles what is undoubtedly one of the most significant – and controversial – issues facing the world: global warming. Acclaimed journalist Elizabeth Kolbert traveled all over the globe to talk to researchers and environmentalists and to people who are already experiencing the effects of global warming in their everyday lives. Writing wryly and incisively about the politics and rhetoric of environmental policy making, she asks us to consider what, if anything, we can do to save our planet.

2006: Song For My Fathers

Author: Tom Sancton

Song for my Fathers is Tom Sancton’s memoir of falling in love with the music and ways of African-American jazzmen as a white teenager in mid-20th-century New Orleans. In the last years of the segregation era, Sancton’s father introduced him to the musical community fostered by the newly-opened Preservation Hall. There, Sancton learned to play the clarinet from “the mens,” musicians who had been contemporaries of Louis Armstrong. Song for my Fathers honors the “mens” whose artistic legacy Sancton continues, his unconventional father, and the hope for racial harmony and understanding.

2005: Mountains Beyond Mountains*

Author: Tracy Kidder

Powerful and inspiring, Mountains Beyond Mountains tells the true story of Paul Farmer, a gifted man who has made a huge difference in the lives of thousands of the world’s poorest citizens. Farmer is a medical doctor, Harvard professor, famous infectious-disease specialist, anthropologist and the recipient of a MacArthur grant. Farmer’s story is compelling in its illustration of how change can take place even under seemingly insurmountable circumstances, but above all it is a story of courage and hope.
*The 2005 Reading Project was cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina.

2004: The Color of Water

Author: James McBride

A lyrical memoir, The Color of Water presents us with two complex voices and an intertwined narrative. James McBride, an accomplished black musician and writer, recounts his childhood and adolescence as one of twelve mixed-race children of poverty growing up in a Brooklyn housing project. The other voice belongs to Rachel Shilsky, the daughter of a failed Polish rabbi who grew up in the South, fled to Harlem, married a black man, founded a church and put twelve children through college. The narratives converge, as Rachel is none other than McBride’s own mother. The Color of Water is an eloquent exploration of the power of race, poverty, religion, and family in America.

2003: West of Kabul, East of New York

Author: Tamim Ansary

West of Kabul, East of New York is Tamim Ansary's memoir of his childhood in pre-war Afghanistan as the son of an Afghan father and an American mother, his adulthood in the U.S., and his return to the Middle East. Always a divided, bicultural and reflexive self, Ansary's story serves as conduit for a bittersweet analysis of the nature of Islam and the Afghan value system.

2002: Rising Tide

Author: John M. Barry

As John M. Barry expertly details in Rising Tide, some natural disasters transform much more than the landscape. Barry explains how ineptitude and greed helped cause the 1927 Mississippi River flood, and how the policies created to deal with the disaster changed the culture of the Mississippi Delta. Existing racial rifts expanded, helping to launch Herbert Hoover into the White House and shifting the political alliances of many blacks in the process. An absorbing account of a little-known, yet monumental event in American history, Rising Tide reveals how human behavior proved more destructive than the swollen river itself.