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15 Books Incoming College Freshmen Had to Read This Summer 

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Duke University recently made headlines after some of its incoming freshmen refused to read the college’s required common reading assignment. The book in question was Fun Home: a graphic (and, well, occasionally graphic) novel by Alison Bechdel that explores themes of sexuality, mental health, and family relationships.

“The book is a quick read but not an easy one; it made me uncomfortable at times, which I think is one of the most telling reasons why it's so important for students to read,” Ibaca Anand, a student who helped university administrators select Fun Home, told Duke Today.

So far, no students from other schools have publicly come forward with similar protests. However, the entire debate raises the question: What other books are the rest of the country's incoming freshmen reading, and why were they chosen? Just in time for back-to-school season, here's a sampling of summer reading assignments from colleges across the country.

1. Elon University // Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr.

King writes about the non-violent movement against racial segregation in this seminal 1963 work. “The book is a timeless classic, the sort of work that everyone should read at least once,” Elon University’s website states. “The book’s messages resonate strongly with modern events/conditions happening all around us, both in our local community and around the world.”

2. University of California-Los Angeles // Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Gay is as well known for her prolific social media presence as she is for her second book, Bad Feminist—a buzzy collection of essays that explore the challenges of being a feminist in today’s contradictory, pop culture-saturated world. According to university chancellor Gene D. Block, the book will “provide the university community with a platform for engaging in critical dialogue and discussion around a variety of topics including politics, American culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, perceptions of feminism, etc.”  

3. University of Delaware // Just Mercy  by Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who hails from Milton, Delaware, founded the Equal Justice Initiative—a nonprofit that provides legal services to impoverished, wrongly convicted, and marginalized clients. Just Mercy details the case of Walter McMillian, a young Southern man who was exonerated from Death Row after Stevenson helped prove his innocence. Stevenson’s book "challenges us to consider what justice truly is," says the University of Delaware's website

4. Skidmore College // Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman 

Alan Lightman, who teaches physics and writing at M.I.T., fuses together science and the humanities in his collection of stories depicting a young Albert Einstein fine-tuning his theory of relativity. “Together these essays provide a sense of the breadth and depth of thinking made possible by an education in the liberal arts,” says Janet Casey, a professor of English at Skidmore College. 

5. Penn State // The Boom by Russell Gold 

Written by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Russell Gold, The Boom chronicles the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in America. “Fracking is an issue very relevant to Pennsylvania communities, and we thought it would be good to engage students, faculty and staff about something that’s going on right within our home state,” says Barry Bram, special assistant to Damon Sims, the university’s vice president of student affairs. 

6. Seton Hall University // The Ledge by Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughan 

The Ledge—a harrowing true story of one mountain climber’s near-death experience—is all about survival. “College students need both grit (the ability to tough it out) and resiliency (the ability to bounce back from adversity) if they expect to persist and graduate,” states a prompt for the university’s summer reading essay contest, which instructs students to describe a personal situation that required profound inner strength. 

7. Smith College // The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway 

Imagine this: The year is 2393, and the world has been ravaged by climate change. In The Collapse of Western Civilization, Oreskes and Conway paint a picture of how this hypothetical situation could occur. They also urge contemporary readers to take action and prevent it. This book is "a timely and thought-provoking novel about the effects of climate change, a topic of pressing importance for us all,” Smith College’s website writes.

8. Johns Hopkins University // The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last spring, Coates served as the inaugural speaker for JHU’s brand-new "Forum on Race in America"—the very same week riots tore across Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death.

However, Hopkins didn’t choose the thought leader’s latest memoir based on timeliness alone. He's also a local boy. “Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in Baltimore and his book is an account of his experiences as a boy growing up in our city,” says Johns Hopkins University

9. Ball State University // Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Dumas immigrated to California from her native Iran when she was only 7 years old. Ball State freshmen are provided with discussion questions that instruct them to draw parallels between Dumas’s story of assimilation and their own lives. They’re also asked to research various facets of Iranian culture, including traditional gender roles, the nation’s political history, and the religion of Islam. 

10. Tufts University // Acts of Faith  by Eboo Patel

Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes interfaith dialogue and understanding through community service projects. Equal parts memoir and call-to-action, Patel’s “personal story explores important questions of community, compassion, and commitment and resonates strongly with our core values of active citizenship and global engagement,” writes Tufts University president Anthony P. Monaco.

11. Northwestern University // The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King 

This unvarnished look at the tumultuous history of Native people in North America “will help diminish the ignorance many of us have and focus on some important issues that don’t normally come to the fore in media,” says Professor Loren Ghiglione, the faculty chair of the 2015-16 One Book One Northwestern program. 

12. Princeton University // Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele

Stereotypes aren’t truth—but they can shape our identities. In Whistling Vivaldi, renowned social psychologist Claude Steele takes a hard look at how judgments like “Women aren’t good at math” or “African-American men are violent” harm us on both an individual and societal level. “Professor Steele describes a series of inventive experiments—including some involving Princeton students—that enabled him to develop and test his hypothesis about how negative stereotypes affect us in times of stress,” says Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton University’s president. “All of us, no matter what our backgrounds may be, will recognize ourselves in some of Professor Steele’s examples.”

13. Texas State University // ...And The Earth Did Not Devour Himby Tomás Rivera

Rivera’s memoir details the abuses, triumphs, and sorrows he experienced as a child of migrant farm workers in south Texas. The book helps kick off a year-long Texas State University initiative, “Bridged Through Stories,” which encourages students to learn more about the shared heritage of the United States and Mexico. 

14. University of Idaho // All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Doerr's dual narrative tells the tale of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German orphan named Werner who meet in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. The university doesn't specify why, exactly, it chose this book as its 2015 Common Read. It can't hurt, though, that Doerr was Idaho's writer-in-residence from 2007-2010. Another plus: The book won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

15. Cornell University // Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut was a Cornell student before he dropped out of college in 1943 to enlist in the Army. While fighting in World War II, he was captured by German soldiers. The bombing of Dresden inspired his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five—the same book that Cornell's incoming freshmen read this past summer.

“Vonnegut’s eminence, his reflections on the ideals and challenges of a generation, and his Cornell roots make Slaughterhouse-Five an exceptional selection for our reading project this coming year,” senior vice provost for undergraduate education, Laura Brown, told the Cornell Chronicle

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
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As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
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In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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