Common Read

Each year, the Sweet Briar community comes together over a common text, one chosen for its artistic merit and its engagement with vital questions and ideas. Students, faculty, and staff gather for lunch-hour conversations throughout the year and host the writer for both an informal Q&A in the Cochran Library and an evening presentation in the Babcock Performing Arts Center.

2021-2022: Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer is the Common Read selection for the 2021-2022 academic year. Described by Elizabeth Gilbert as “a hymn of love to the world,” “Braiding Sweetgrass” has reached hundreds of thousands of readers who have embraced the book’s message of how to reimagine our relationship to the natural world for a more loving, fruitful, sustainable and generous future.

A botanist, teacher, mother, grandmother and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin writes from a place of deep scientific and spiritual knowledge. Her richly informed account of the gifts and lessons we receive from plants and animals, and from the forces of wind, rain and sunlight, sets the path to return us to ecological balance with the living world while giving us the knowledge to understand and celebrate our place in it.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (PC: Dale Kakkak)
Robin Wall Kimmerer (PC: Dale Kakkak)

“I’m very excited for students to begin their discovery of ‘Braiding Sweetgrass,’” says creative writing professor Carrie Brown. “Our students are deeply interested in issues of sustainability and deeply aware of their role in stewarding our rich natural resources and wild companions — plant and animal — at Sweet Briar, and I know the book will resonate with them, as it has resonated with so many readers.”

“Like many members of our campus community, I am thrilled at the choice of ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ as our 2021-2022 Common Read,” says Reesa Artz ’22. “The message of the book works very well with the ventures that Sweet Briar is already exploring and is a wonderful opportunity for students to have a deeper understanding about our connection to nature. As a member of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe, I have always recognized and seen the importance of acknowledging how much our earth gives to us, and how when we work in harmony with her, we can be the most healthy and happy versions of ourselves.” 

Robin will visit campus on March 23, 2022. Between now and then, we invite you to dive into this marvelous book and share your responses with one another through both an online platform and at events this coming fall. Incoming students will meet in small groups during orientation for discussion, and all students will be invited later in the fall to a special supper gathering when we can share the harvest produced from Sweet Briar soil and consider how best to deepen our connection to this place that sustains us. 

“Sweet Briar is blessed with acres of fields and forest and is also a liberal arts institution committed to sustainability and equity,” notes Carrie. “As such, ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ is the perfect book for our time and place.”

Past Common Read Selections

2020-2021: The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth ExtinctionPulitzer Prize-winning author and The New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert will virtually join the Sweet Briar community on April 19 at 7:30 p.m. for a special presentation and Q&A session around her book “The Sixth Extinction,” which is the College’s 2020-2021 Common Read selection.

Elizabeth joins us through Sweet Briar College’s 2021 Julia B. Waxter Environmental Forum, which has been held at the College since 1999. Past speakers include Ginette Hemley with the World Wildlife Fund, Old Growth Forest founder Joan Maloof, and writers Barbara Kingsolver and Scott Russell Sanders.

Lisa Powell, environmental science professor and director of the College’s Center for Human and Environmental Sustainability, will lead the interview with Elizabeth, followed by a panel of students for questions and discussion.

“We’re grateful that Ms. Kolbert can join us virtually this spring, despite the interruptions caused by the pandemic,” says Carrie Brown, professor of English and creative writing and director of the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts. “As one of the leading voices in environmental journalism, she is working with enormous intelligence, empathy, and bravery – not to mention considerable skill as a writer — at the leading edge of a dark and difficult story, the unfolding drama of the scientific and existential threat to life on the planet. In many ways, she is an emissary from that approaching horizon, and her work shows us how to see both behind us and ahead as we face the immensely complex landscape of the future.”

“I say bravery, because I think it takes courage to bear witness, as she does in ‘The Sixth Extinction,’ to the ominous ways that human beings have changed and are changing the shape and future of life on the planet,” continues Carrie. “The stories she tells stay with us, even as the subjects of those stories vanish, and I know it will be inspiring for members of our community to hear from her about how she finds those stories and brings them to us.”

The Julia B. Waxter Environmental Forum is supported by an endowment established by the late Julia Baldwin Waxter ’49 and her husband, Bill. In addition to presenting a public lecture, each forum speaker interacts with environmental science students through class visits, a dinner and informal conversations.

2019-2020: Circe, by Madeline Miller, and The Odyssey, by Emily Wilson

Circe and The OdysseySweet Briar College’s Common Read selection for the 2019-2020 academic year featured not one book, but a pair of books “in dynamic and rich conversation with one another across thousands of years,” says Director of the Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts Carrie Brown. They were Madeline Miller’s No. 1 New York Times best-selling novel “Circe” —about the legendary sorceress and goddess who (among other things) turns men into pigs in The Odyssey—and Emily Wilson’s celebrated translation of “The Odyssey,” the first English translation by a woman. The writers were originally scheduled to visit campus, but due to COVID, they joined us virtually. Read more here.

Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. She has taught and tutored Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students for the past twenty years. She has also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and in the Dramaturgy department at Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms.

The Song of Achilles,” her first novel, was awarded the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a New York Times Bestseller. It has been translated into over twenty-five languages including Dutch, Mandarin, Japanese, Turkish, Arabic and Greek. Madeline was also shortlisted for the 2012 Stonewall Writer of the Year. Her second novel, “Circe,” was an instant number 1 New York Times bestseller, is currently short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and won the Indies Choice Best Adult Fiction of the Year Award and the the Indies Choice Best Audiobook of the Year Award. It was also given The Red Tentacle Award, an American Library Association Alex Award (adult books of special interest to teen readers), and the 2018 Elle Big Book Award. Madeline’s essays have appeared in a number of publications including the Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Telegraph, Lapham’s Quarterly and She currently lives outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson is professor of Classical Studies and graduate chair of the Program in Comparative Literature & Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. Wilson attended Oxford University (Balliol College B.A. and Corpus Christi College M.Phil.) and Yale University (Ph.D.). In 2006, she was named a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome in Renaissance & Early Modern scholarship. She lives in Philadelphia with her three daughters and three cats.

In November 2017, Wyatt Mason profiled Professor Wilson in The New York Times Magazine.  “When I first read these lines early this summer in The Paris Review, which published an excerpt, I was floored. I’d never read an “Odyssey” that sounded like this. It had such directness, the lines feeling not as if they were being fed into iambic pentameter because of some strategic decision but because the meter was a natural mode for its speaker.”

2018-2019 Common Read: Americanah, by Chimamanda Adichie

Adichie signs a book for DaZane Cole '20
Adichie signs a book for DaZane Cole ’20

Described by The New York Times Magazine as “the rare novelist to become a public intellectual, as well as a defining voice on race and gender for the digital age,” Nigerian-born Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” is one of the most-viewed TED Talks of all time. Her 2012 Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists” has been viewed over four million times and ignited an international conversation about feminism. A recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Chimamanda has won many awards for her work, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Orange Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has been translated into over thirty languages and has appeared in various publications, including The New Yorker, Granta, The O. Henry Prize Stories, the Financial Times and Zoetrope.

Chimamanda first visited Sweet Briar in 2009 after the publication of her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” a piercing coming-of-age story about a young woman in Nigeria whose awakening occurs in the midst of a military coup. Since the publication of “Purple Hibiscus,” she has gone on to publish the novel “Half a Yellow Sun,” about Biafra’s desperate struggle for independence within Nigeria, a collection of short stories, “The Thing Around Your Neck,” two works of non-fiction, including “We Should All Be Feminists” and “Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.” Her novel “Americanah,” licensed for publication in 29 languages and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction was listed among the New York Times Book Review’s “Ten Best Books of 2013.” “Americanah” is a love story, the tale of two young people whose paths diverge. It is also a trenchant (and sometimes funny) investigation of race, immigration, culture, ethnicity, and the social and political forces that seek to divide and conquer us, as well as those which keep us together. “There are some novels that tell a great story,” wrote Elizabeth Day in The Guardian, “and others that make you change the way you look at the world…. ‘Americanah’ is a book that manages to do both.”

She returned to the College in October 2018. Read how one student reacted to her visit.

Additional Common Read selections:

  • Chimamanda Adichie, “We Should All Be Feminists”
  • Tracy Kidder, “Strength in What Remains”
  • Barbara Kingsolver, “Flight Behavior”
  • Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into
    Opportunity for Women Worldwide”
  • Jack Weatherford, “The History of Money: From Sandstone to Cyberspace”
  • Reza Aslan, “Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age
    of Globalization”
  • Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”