2015-16 On the Same Page: “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”

This year's "On the Same Page" book, Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is about contemporary India and will be of interest to all members of the SSEAS community.


The goal of the On the Same Page program is to generate discussion--and sometimes action--around a common theme. Towards that goal we endeavor each year to choose a book that is engaging to students and faculty members from a wide array of disciplinary backgrounds and inclinations. We are also aware that the selected work will be the first gift that new students receive from UC Berkeley. and for this reason we want it to be a work that signals something about our values, and the level of complex thinking that students can expect to encounter in college. Finally, because we feature the author in a keynote event in the fall, the work must be by a living author. 

Working with all these criteria, a team of faculty members spent the summer of 2014 reading widely, in a quest to come up with the best possible titles for the 2015 program. They selected four books, each of which would have formed the basis for an exciting and thought-provoking On the Same Page program in the fall of 2015. We then made copies of all four books available to fifty volunteer student reviewers, recruited speicifically because their roles bring them into contact with a wide variety of other undergraduates: they are RA's in the residence halls, CalSO leaders, ASUC officers, Public Service Center participants and the like. Thirty-seven of these students submitted scores and written comments on one or more of the books over the fall 2014 term, during which the five Letters & Science deans were also reading all four finalist texts. At the end of the fall the deans took all of the faculty and student responses into account when making the final decision. 

The various faculty and student reviewers voiced an array of reasons for speaking in favor of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Professor Alan Tansman's reasons are summarized in a short piece he wrote, which also appears on the On the Same Page landing page:

"Reading Katherine Boo's Pulitzer Prize winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers leaves one's mind and heart shaken and changed. Her thick and intense description of people striving to survive a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport in India reads like a gripping novel that is all too real in its tale of poverty and depredation, of human frailty and strength. On every page you'll find the makings of a tragedy but also glimmers of possibilities for surviving tragedy. And on every page you'll learn from Boo's unsentimental empathy and insight how to think with respect about the hard and complex condition of life under terrible stress. You'll leave the book equipped with her deep insights into how people survive alongside one another in an era and place of tumultuous change. And you'll leave amazed at the writer's commitment to getting the story right by living within it and rendering it in pitch perfect prose."

Here are some representative quotations from student reviewers:

"The lyricism of Boo's writing makes the stories of the residents of Annawadi 'come alive' in a way usually only seen with fiction. Without being polemical, it explores difficult topics and delivers a gripping appeal to the reader's conscience. It's impossible to ignore the empathy these stories provoke. It's equally impossible to ignore our own complicity in the inequality that leaves some members of humanity behind even as the privileged soar to greater heights in our globalizing world.” (Adora Zvitak)

 “The top strengths of this book were giving an in-depth insight to life in a Mumbai undercity without pulling any punches or sugarcoating anything. In addition, another top strength was how it changed point of view and give the different perspectives.” (Ivette Flores)

 “The fact that it highlights the moral ambiguities and complications. It's complex and heady and shows that not every issue is one sided.” (Brian Mason)

 “It was great. Very interesting story lines that flesh out a history and a person, not just a face of poverty.” (Zelia Ziegler Hunt)

 “Behind the Beautiful Forevers excels in most, if not all, aspects of literature. In a beautiful poetic writing style, Katherine Boo manages to transport the reader into a world that is unknown to many of us first-world citizens, teaching about slum life while still connecting the reader to her characters' lives through emotion and drama. The amount of detail that she packs into this book is stunning; almost every sentence seems to include the results of on-site research.” (Naomi Primero)

 “The writing is absolutely wonderful. The author's descriptions of characters and scenes paint very vivid images in my mind while I read. The setting of the book is rich and the characters are unique and fascinating.” (Danielle Kenwood)

Reviewers have also lavished praise on Behind the Beautiful Forevers: you can find an assortment of professional reviews on the Resource page of this site. But in the final analysis, only you can judge for yourself whether this book was a good selection for On the Same Page. Read the book and comment on it on our facebook page, to start a conversation with other students. Or enroll in L&S 10 to discuss it in greater depth with fellow students, in person and online.