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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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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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iStock
Why a Readily Available Used Paperback Is Selling for Thousands of Dollars on Amazon
iStock
iStock

At first glance, getting ahold of a copy of One Snowy Knight, a historical romance novel by Deborah MacGillivray, isn't hard at all. You can get the book, which originally came out in 2009, for a few bucks on Amazon. And yet according to one seller, a used copy of the book is worth more than $2600. Why? As The New York Times reports, this price disparity has more to do with the marketing techniques of Amazon's third-party sellers than it does the market value of the book.

As of June 5, a copy of One Snowy Knight was listed by a third-party seller on Amazon for $2630.52. By the time the Times wrote about it on July 15, the price had jumped to $2800. That listing has since disappeared, but a seller called Supersonic Truck still has used copy available for $1558.33 (plus shipping!). And it's not even a rare book—it was reprinted in July.

The Times found similar listings for secondhand books that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars more than their market price. Those retailers might not even have the book on hand—but if someone is crazy enough to pay $1500 for a mass-market paperback that sells for only a few dollars elsewhere, that retailer can make a killing by simply snapping it up from somewhere else and passing it on to the chump who placed an order with them.

Not all the prices for used books on Amazon are so exorbitant, but many still defy conventional economic wisdom, offering used copies of books that are cheaper to buy new. You can get a new copy of the latest edition of One Snowy Knight for $16.99 from Amazon with Prime shipping, but there are third-party sellers asking $24 to $28 for used copies. If you're not careful, how much you pay can just depend on which listing you click first, thinking that there's not much difference in the price of used books. In the case of One Snowy Knight, there are different listings for different editions of the book, so you might not realize that there's a cheaper version available elsewhere on the site.

An Amazon product listing offers a mass-market paperback book for $1558.33.
Screenshot, Amazon

Even looking at reviews might not help you find the best listing for your money. People tend to buy products with the most reviews, rather than the best reviews, according to recent research, but the site is notorious for retailers gaming the system with fraudulent reviews to attract more buyers and make their way up the Amazon rankings. (There are now several services that will help you suss out whether the reviews on a product you're looking at are legitimate.)

For more on how Amazon's marketplace works—and why its listings can sometimes be misleading—we recommend listening to this episode of the podcast Reply All, which has a fascinating dive into the site's third-party seller system.

[h/t The New York Times]

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