A Meditation on Possibility: RHB’s Annual Summer Reading List

What is possible?

RHB’s summer reading recommendations derive from a variety of genres and themes. But, they share one feature: a meditation on possibility.

What is possible if we have faith, if we imagine, if we fall in love, if we follow a trail through history in pursuit of a life’s story or to solve a mystery, if we choose a new way to respond to injustice or to technological change? What is possible for any of us as individuals and as part of a collective, a couple, a team, a nation or a global community?

The glory of possibility is that we can find it anywhere, and if we are approachable, it can find us anywhere. Seasonal rounds give us the opportunity to reflect on what has happened and what could happen, now that we are experiencing this season anew, again—just as we can do with books. Here’s to a season of sun, breeze and restored heart, body and mind that opens us to what is possible.

Ken Anselment’s pick:

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott

Fans of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life will feel right at home with Lamott’s thoughtful, vulnerable, irreverent, wise and funny voice in this follow-up to her seminal work. Much like I have with Bird by Bird, I have come back to Traveling Mercies many times in my life, and the experience has always been different, the stories fresh, even though I’ve read them before, and the insights giving me just what I need, even though I may not have been quite sure what I was asking for. For example, on this round of reading Traveling Mercies, I am in the process of writing my own book (there’s a teaser for you), and her writerly voice is helping me relocate, stretch and play with my own.

If books about faith or religion make you squeamish, don’t worry: she’s not out to convert anyone so much as she wants to serve herself up as an example of someone who confidently, boldly, even brazenly thinks and acts in counterproductive ways, only to realize the grace and wisdom available in each of those moments—if only one remains open to noticing them. 

Here’s one shining example, in a chapter about forgiveness, where she hilariously retells a story of her reactions to a hypercompetitive fellow school mom who seems to always be parenting better than Lamott is:

The day of the field trip, she said sweetly, “I just want you to know, Annie, that if you have any other questions about how the classroom works, I’d really love to be there for you.”

I smiled back at her. I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.

Yeah. It’s that kind of book.

Rick Bailey’s picks:

At last…I am able to take up some reading that isn’t required or pertaining to my dissertation. If you’d like some “light” reading on qualitative research methods, educational leadership or diversity management and DEIB theory, I’m happy to offer a reference list. But assuming that’s not the case, I’ll instead tell you what’s on my list now that I have some time to read for pleasure.

I’m recently intrigued by the life of Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant and Indianapolis philanthropist. I discovered that he left a sizable endowment to ensure the sustainability of the church we attend, Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis. So, I ordered James Madison’s biography, Eli Lilly, A Life, 1885-1977. Lilly himself wrote a book about the history of our church that I found as well, The Little Church on the Circle. I’ve heard stories from fellow parishioners that captivated my interest so these two books should be fun reads.

My visionary daughter-in-law Lauren knew there would be a day when I wasn’t doing research and gave me two books I can hardly wait to dive into. The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride and I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai promise to be gripping reads. They are both murder mysteries so I’ll get lost in them for a bit. 

When I’m rested, I’ll tackle some slightly heavier reads. I have David Brooks’ How to Know a Person on my desk. I started reading it during spring break, but doctoral students don’t really get a spring break, so I’ve only read a couple chapters and I’m eager to finish it. I recently heard Stephanie Land speak and I have her book, Class, on hand and ready. And I just picked up a copy of American Idolatry, by Andrew Whitehead, a sociology professor at Indiana University here in Indianapolis. He writes about the threat of Christian Nationalism and I can’t wait to read it.

Now that my work responsibility has all but been completed, I’m overjoyed by the prospect of time for leisure reading. A book and a cup of coffee in the morning (or a Negroni or Mezcal Last Word at night) will be just the ticket as I start a new life chapter of my own. You know where to find me.

Erin Gore’s pick:

A Future So Bright: How Strategic Optimism and Meaningful Innovation Can Restore Our Humanity and Save The World by Kate O’Neill

A Future So Bright provides a realistic and optimistic view of how meaningful innovation centered on human experience can change the world. Meaningful innovation creates meaningful human experiences—and relevance, which aligns quite well with RHB’s mission and values. 

Overall, O’Neill encourages readers to think critically about the consequences of their actions in the digital age and advocates for creating a future that is both bright and sustainable. Rather than meet change with cynicism, focus on empathy and adaption and tech humanism over tech solutionism. As O’Neill says, “Tech will not ruin us or save us; our adaptability will save us.” The future IS bright when we consider how technology can amplify our values and solve large-scale issues to benefit society. 

Aimee Hosemann’s picks:

Secrets, Lies, and Consequences: A Great Scholar’s Hidden Past and His Protégé’s Unsolved Murder  by Bruce Lincoln

The unsolved 1990 murder of Ioan Culianu, a scholar at the University of Chicago, leads his colleague, Bruce Lincoln, to examine the history of famous UChicago religious studies professor Mircea Eliade. Earlier in the twentieth century, Eliade was a vocal supporter of Romanian nationalism. This included arguing for cleansing Romanian society of democracy and non-Christian actors. Part murder mystery and part historical and archival work examining Eliade’s own publications, Lincoln asks what Culianu’s death has to do with Eliade’s life. Perhaps Culianu was attempting to protect Eliade’s reputation from scrutiny. And who killed Culianu? This is a gripping story that leads readers to meditate on how the past is never really the past, and on where our professional and moral obligations may meet.

Critical Hope: How to Grapple with Complexity, Lead with Purpose, and Cultivate Transformative Social Change by Kari Grain

It’s natural to be deeply affected by the many injustices we see around us. And yet it’s essential to be hopeful. Can we more deeply understand and then blend these two interpretive and emotional modes? What opportunities would that create for us and for society? In RHB’s work, we sometimes see occasions during which deeply felt and righteous criticisms are offered precisely because that person holds out hope that change is possible. 

Critical Hope offers a way to understand how two seemingly contradictory modes can interanimate to great effect. This book was a recommendation from University of North Carolina Wilmington professor (and leading researcher into higher ed employee engagement) Kevin McClure during a discussion Rob Zinkan and I had with McClure about his forthcoming book, The Caring University. Grain’s book offers seven principles for undertaking the complicated and required work of learning how to use our ability to be deeply affected by societal wrongs and to act in hopeful ways that have a real chance of making a difference. I appreciate that Grain gives us permission to recognize that possibilities can emerge even in the context of “negative” emotions like grief, which is a natural response to systemic inequity and loss. I especially appreciate the way she combines qualitative data, multicultural references and practical steps to help move us toward owning our agency so we can do what we can and must.

Ryan Millbern’s pick:

Wellness by Nathan Hill

I wish I could recommend a book to you that would help you on your professional development journey: one that contained a tidy collection of work hacks or a bulleted list of principles you could use as your new North Star.

I wish I could recommend a breezy beach read that would allow you to slip into the familiar grip of the genre of your choice and escape the complexity of your own life, the messiness of your work and the overpowering deluge of pings, notifications and alerts that clutter our consciousness.

Instead, I’ll recommend Wellness by Nathan Hill, a sprawling, emotionally messy novel about the toll that time takes on our relationships, our desires and our perception of happiness. * Cue Debby Downer noise.

Wellness begins in mid-1990s Chicago, as Jack and Elizabeth, both college students, fall in love. The swooning newness of their fresh infatuation with each other collides with the excitement of a burgeoning music and art scene and it seems they will live forever in this bohemian paradise, surviving only on the beauty of their ideas, the intensity of their passion and the occasional cigarette smoked in the face of the oppressive Chicago winter.  

The novel jumps 20 years into the future and Jack and Elizabeth are raising a child, struggling to purchase their “forever home,” trying fad diets, engaging in Facebook wars with their parents, dabbling in polygamy and attempting to justify their art in an age of clickbaity commoditization. 

The juxtaposition of these two periods in their lives—and the ways in which Hill threads together Jack and Elizabeth’s shared history with their present desires—creates a complex, multi-layered story that is as propulsive and fun as it is heartbreaking. I’ll leave you with this beautiful passage:

Maybe the human heart was just that messy, and all romance was deeply precarious, and the future was unresolved, and that was fine. Maybe that’s what true love actually was: an embrace of the chaotic unfolding. And maybe the only stories that had neat and certain conclusions were lies and fables and conspiracies. Maybe it was like Dr. Sanborne said: certainty was just a story the mind created to defend itself against the pain of living. Which meant, almost by definition, that certainty was a way to avoid living. You could choose to be certain, or you could choose to be alive.  

Sam Waterson’s pick:

Who Not How: The Formula to Achieve Bigger Goals Through Accelerating Teamwork by Dan Sullivan

“Focus on your unique abilities and find unique people for everything else.” Yes. 

Who Not How is a guide to achieving bigger outcomes and accelerating progress through teamwork and collaboration, emphasizing the importance of tapping into the strengths and expertise of others to achieve collective success. 

Sullivan, founder of The Strategic Coach Inc. (Strategic Coach has been a valuable resource to RHB over the years), shows readers how to shift focus from “How can I do this?” to “Who can help me achieve this?” Making this shift embraces an abundance mentality by recognizing that there are talented “whos”—individuals and teams—who can not only help, but also transform and expand your vision. If you want to achieve greater results but are feeling overwhelmed with the minutiae of day-to-day tasks, Who Not How might be a game-changer for you.

Rob Zinkan’s pick:

Imaginable: How to Create a Hopeful Future―in Your Own Life, Your Community, the World by Jane McGonigal

Imaginable ( 2023 ) is the most thought-provoking book I’ve read over the last year. Jane McGonigal, Ph.D., a professional futurist and game designer who remarkably led a social simulation in 2008 of a global pandemic to occur in 2019, empowers readers to make the unimaginable imaginable. She offers practical tools and techniques to think like a futurist, from learning to mentally time travel—known as episodic future thinking—to collecting signals of change. The book’s biggest takeaway is a balanced feeling of urgent optimism, “knowing you have agency and the ability to use your unique talents, skills, and life experiences to create the world you want to live in.”

In our RHB research on higher education strategic planning, we found that new plans are trending shorter in duration. McGonigal explains, though, that short-termism doesn’t help us think maximally. Thinking about a longer time horizon, such as 10 years, can help “unstick our minds” and “consider possibilities we would otherwise dismiss.” What do you see for your institution, your students, your colleagues and yourself if you take a 10-year trip into the future and try to describe it in vivid detail?

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.

Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.