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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tag: Book Club

Smarty Pants Book Club: “I Am Malala”
Guest Blog Post by Leah Ujda


In my pre-Design Concepts work life, I was a
librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One of my favorite
experiences there was serving multiple years on the book selection
committee for Go Big Read, the campus-wide common book program.
Sponsored
by the Office of the Chancellor in partnership with the Center for First-Year Experience, and many other units of the university,
the goal of Go Big Read is to “engage members of the campus community
and beyond in a shared, academically focused reading experience.” This
fall, our very own Smarty Pants Book Club joined thousands of others in
the Madison community in reading “I Am Malala” by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.

“I
Am Malala” is the true story of a girl in Pakistan who, along with her
father, is a vocal advocate for girls’ right to an education in spite of
the restrictions imposed by the Taliban. Malala’s father is a school
owner who encouraged her to speak out, write and attend school from an
early age. As a young student her story caught the attention of Western
journalists and media. Malala’s (then anonymous) blog detailing daily
life under the Taliban was picked up by the BBC when she was 11 years
old and she was profiled in the New York Times in 2009. She became quite
well known both internationally and in her home in the Swat Valley in
Pakistan, and her outspoken views gained the attention of the Taliban.
In October 2012, Malala was shot at point blank range by masked Taliban
soldiers while riding the bus home from school.

One of the things
we talked a lot about at book club was Malala’s perception of herself
and her life – as Chad put it, “until she was shot in the head she
didn’t think she was particularly incendiary or special.” To the members
of our book club – educated, employed, comfortable Americans – Malala
and the people in her village often seemed to be dealing with life close
to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. Their basic safety and security
was not a given. Regardless of the dangerous environment she and her
family lived in, Malala wrote about love, respect, independence and
betterment.

By reading the same book and coming together to talk about it, we take an individual activity and make it social.

Related
to this idea of perception, we talked a bit about Malala’s idealism and
optimism. At the risk of being cynical and jaded, we wondered how much
of her story and the presentation of it was coached. Christina Lamb, an
award-winning British journalist, co-wrote the book with Malala and book
club members agreed that it was very obvious that this story was being
presented to a Western audience. Ultimately, our discussion wound around
to the conclusion that it really didn’t matter how coached, edited or
polished the story may have been. Stories like Malala’s pull people out
of blindness and illustrate the powerful and destructive nature of
ignorance.

There were moments in the book that revealed how broken
the political system of Pakistan under the Taliban really is. For
example, after she was shot Malala was transported to a hospital in
England for treatment and it took two weeks for Malala’s family to gain
the necessary paperwork to join her there. Corin noted that a system
that prioritizes political favors and self-interest over the family of a
critically wounded 15-year-old girl has stepped completely outside of
human empathy. But this is not a “Pakistan thing” or even a “Taliban
thing.” It is a human thing. Corruption can thrive anywhere with right
set of circumstances, timing and luck.

We wrapped up our
discussion with some reflection on common reading programs such as Go
Big Read and the experience of participating in a book club. By reading
the same book and coming together to talk about it, we take an
individual activity and make it social. Corin participated in a
campus-wide common book program during her freshman year at Virginia
Tech, and both Roshelle and I previously took part in the Chicago Public
Library’s “One City, One Book” initiative. Even our little office book
club provides a forum for shared experiences that foster connections
among people and push us to pick up books we might not have otherwise
selected. All of us agreed that having a shared experience at the same
time is rare and precious. “I Am Malala” filled the Smarty Pants Book
Club with feelings of gratitude and connection just in time for the
holiday season… and it made us feel a lot smarter while we watch
“Homeland.”

Leah Ujda
Research Specialist
Design Concepts