The University of Mississippi’s 2021 Common Reading Experience will focus on “World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments,” a celebrated new collection of essays by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, UM professor of English and creative writing.
After reviewing many community submissions and other finalists, a committee of faculty, staff and students made the pick. All incoming Ole Miss freshmen and transfer students will get the book with instructions to read it before the fall semester begins. Instructors will utilize the book in their classes, and faculty and staff are also encouraged to read the works.
Nezhukumatathil said her book being chosen is special in part because some local sites are featured in “World of Wonders.”
“This is especially meaningful because this book starts and ends with love – recollections of the outdoors and the various animals and trees that have captivated me,” Nezhukumatathil said. “But it ends right here in Oxford, Mississippi, a place where my family and I now call home. The university’s own incredible Tree Trail and champion catalpa tree get a mention here too.”
“It makes me smile to no end that readers all over the world have connected with these short, illustrated essays of the outdoors.”
She said the book answers the central questions of “What and where is home for you? How can you find love and safety again in a place when you are transplanted or facing a new situation?”
“These are universal concerns,” Nezhukumatathil said. “I try to remind people to practice having wonder in their lives as adults because so many of us had that curiosity and excitement about learning as children.
“It’s not only vital towards opening our hearts when there is so much division in the news, but it’s also free to do so.”
She said she’s a poet at heart, not a scientist, but has always loved being outdoors.
“I have loved the dazzling outdoors all my life,” Nezhukumatathil said. “There is so much that I don’t know about the natural world, but I view that curiosity as a good thing, a place where I feel alive and my pulse quickens because I genuinely want to know the hows and the whys of creatures and plants with whom I share this planet.”
She said she never would have been able to write this kind of book without “the time and headspace” that the John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residency at UM gave her.
“As I mention in the book: I could feel a shift in my body the first day we opened the door and stepped foot in Oxford, like tiny magnets in me lined up and snapped to attention because I was finally where I needed to be,” Nezhukumatathil said. “I could feel it in my bones … a landscape full of blue sky and whirls of thick kudzu and cricket song.”
Since its debut in September 2020, the book has been a smash hit, including being chosen by Barnes & Noble as its Book of the Year. Following the Barnes & Noble recognition, “World of Wonders” jumped to No. 5 on the prestigious New York Times Best Seller List for Nonfiction and was named to year-end best book lists published by BookPage, Esquire, NPR and The Wall Street Journal, among others.
It’s particularly exciting the Ole Miss community will dive into such a beautiful and widely acclaimed book from an accomplished member of its campus, Chancellor Glenn Boyce said. The university owes its profound thanks to selection committee, and especially to Nezhukumatathil for “gracing us with this extraordinary work,” he said.
“This year’s common read will give rise to curiosity and conversation, and you will experience joy while reading and discussing this book,” Boyce said. “I’m excited for the new insights and understanding that we all will gain from this shared community experience.”
“It calls on us to take delight and pleasure in nature while touching on issues of family, travel and identity.”
The book is sure to inspire and challenge the community, said Stephen Monroe, chair of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric and of the Common Reading Steering Committee.
“Reading a book together is always an act of wonder and discovery,” Monroe said. “Aimee has given us an especially profound place to gather. I thank the selection committee – and the provost and chancellor – for choosing this resplendent text for the 2021 Common Reading Experience.”
The collection of essays is an especially fitting choice, said Natasha Jeter, assistant vice chancellor for wellness and student success and co-chair of the CRE selection subcommittee.
“It speaks to our sense of wonder, is inspirational and will lift our spirits as we emerge from the woes of the pandemic,” Jeter said. “Dr. Nezukumatahil masterfully uses nature and the beauty of the environment to teach us more about life and love.
“It is my hope that our community will be motivated and inspired by her literary work and allow us a place to gather, connect and be transformed.”
The UM Common Reading Experience, created in 2012, aspires for an enriched sense of academic community through communal reading of a text. Each year, a committee of faculty, staff and students choose the selection, which is then approved by the Office of the Provost.
“What the Eyes Don’t See” by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, was the 2020 Common Reading Experience selection. Previous selections include “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” by Ole Miss professor Tom Franklin, “The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan and “The Education of a Lifetime,” a memoir by Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat.
The author is typically invited to speak at Fall Convocation, and Nezukumatahil is looking forward to the opportunity.
The author said she hopes her work ultimately will spark a movement.
“My hope is that readers are guided towards a possibility of tenderness and wonderment towards other living things,” Nezukumatahil said. “I hope this book reminds them of the excitement of being curious about the planet’s wild and weird inhabitants and, most of all, to practice tenderness towards each other.”
For more information on the Common Reading Experience, go to http://umreads.olemiss.edu/.
By Michael Newsom