Episode 22: Summer Book Club - A Deadly Wandering, Part 1

As part of the podcast series Solutions for Higher Education, SUU President Scott L Wyatt will lead a “Summer Reading Club” focusing on a new book each month. Readers who join the podcast will be given an introduction to the book by Scott Wyatt and podcast host Steve Meredith near the beginning of each month, and then near the end of the month, an expert guest will join the conversation to give additional insight and context to the completed reading.

June - A Deadly Wandering: A Mystery, a Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age by Matt Richtel
A Deadly Wandering by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Matt Richtel explores the enormous changes that current technology has brought to our lives, and especially to the ability to focus our attention on tasks at hand. Told in a narrative form, the book alternates between scientific exploration on the subject of human attention, and the tragic story of a young Utah man named Reggie Shaw, whose distracted driving led to devastating consequences. The story also details legislative changes that resulted from the tragedy, and ultimately ends as a hopeful tale of forgiveness and redemption. Matt Richtel covered the story for the New York Times, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of reports, Driven to Distraction, form the basis for the book.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and joining me today, as always, is President Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good Morning Steve.

Meredith: Today, we’re going to try something just a little bit new. It is summer time, and we had a wonderful graduation exercise and have had a couple of weeks here in May to get our feet back underneath us a little bit trying to catch up on emails and all of the other things that get past you when you get incredibly busy, as both of us have been over the last little while. But we decided we would try to have something that is fairly common in magazines and television shows, and that is a summer reading list that we thought might engage our listeners and perhaps engage some SUU alumni that may be listening. And so, the idea is that we are going to have a summer reading list, one book each month, and we’ve chosen three different types of books—very different, I think—and so it should be…I think this is going to be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to it.

Wyatt: Yeah, and if anybody wants to join in on all three, that’s great. If we have three books and all you want to read is one, that’s good too. That’s kind of the idea is a variety of book so everybody has something.

Meredith: So, this first book, the June book, is A Deadly Wandering, and you actually have really great insight because this happened in a part of the world and in a place of your previous employment that gives you some pretty significant background and context. Why don’t you tell us about A Deadly Wandering?

Wyatt: So the book A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel, who was a Pulitzer Prize winning author [and] journalist for The New Times, this is a story about a young guy by the name of Reggie who, while texting on his phone, went over the center line and killed two people on their way to work. The story is fascinating in that it really delves into the characters involved in the book and tells a story of science on the one hand, and on the other hand, about redemption and forgiveness. It’s a beautiful story, and we will have joining us on this book, Terryl Warner, who is one of the prominent characters discussed in the book. And she has a great piece of this story. So that’s our June book. And then July…

Meredith: In July, we’re going to do George Orwell’s 1984, and you know, one of my favorite old jokes about literature is the old joke that goes, “I hate reading Shakespeare, the guy only writes in clichés.” [Laughs] Of course, he invented the cliché, so yeah. [All laugh] And if you look at Orwell’s book, of course it’s not quite like Shakespeare, but if you look at just the impact it’s had on the English language, “Big Brother is watching,” “thought crime,” “new speak,” to “memory-hole something,”—you know, we’re just going to forget that it ever happened—“double-think”—to hold to opposing and believe in each of them sincerely at the same time—that particular book I think is, you know, it’s written by Orwell in 1949 post-war, but he foresaw so many things, and depending on what part of the cultural and political divide you’re on, I think you can find things in 1984 that make you say, “Ah-ha, this is what he was warning us about.” And in a classical, ironic twist, I think there are other double-think things where there are people holding the exact opposite view, holding it exactly just as firmly and passionately but believing that the same writing was geared towards them, not necessarily geared toward the opposite side’s political thoughts, so the idea of intrusion, the idea of a dystopian future in which the freedom of thought, the freedom of movement, the freedom of expression are dramatically curtailed by sort of a disembodied group called “The Party” represented by one particular entity called, “Big Brother” who is always watching. It’s frightening no matter whose side you’re on. [All laugh] It’s just astonishing to me how well Orwell, how accurately he predicted the intrusion of technology into our lives. If nothing else, just that. He pretty well nailed it.

Wyatt: Pretty good book.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: And then in August, we’re going to read a book called The Ghost Map which is the story of London’s most terrifying epidemic and how it changed science, cities, and the modern world by Steven Johnson, That is such an interesting book because of the story of these very small number of people who devoted so much time and attention to figuring out, to actually debunking what science thought was the cause of cholera and the careful attention paid to figuring out what was causing this cholera outbreak. The story is centered on the Broad Street cholera outbreak in London in 1854, and all the weight of science and medicine said that cholera was coming from one thing, and they were trying to solve that one thing. And in doing so, they made the problem so much worse because the cause of cholera was so completely different. And the effort it took to go against the weight of science to find the real cause is the story of this book. And I think it applies to us all the time. I’m always asking myself, “Am I thinking this because everybody else thinks this? Or am I thinking this because this is what makes the most sense? Is this what the evidence shows?” Anyway, it’s a great story. It’s a detective story with some science mixed in. A lot of fun.

Meredith: This sounds like this is going to be great. I’m looking forward to reading these books. I was joking to you while we were on a break that I so often just read owner’s manuals for new pieces of gear and other things because of my job so this, and I don’t mean to say that I’m unread, but this will give me—this will make me read—more interesting books. [All laugh] I don’t know if there are other people who share that same problem. With all the other things they have going on in their life, they don’t make time to refresh their brain with…

Wyatt: With ideas.

Meredith: Yeah, with new ideas.

Wyatt: It’s…you read a lot of owner manuals though.

Meredith: Yeah I do. [Laughs]

Wyatt: And sometimes they’re great reading. We should review one one solution.

Meredith: Yeah, I’ve got one that we should review just for the hilarious grammatical errors as it got translated into English.

Wyatt: So I read an average of 25 books a year, and I talk to some people that have jobs similar to mine, and they say that they don’t have time to read any books at all. But to me, it’s part of my job. If I’m the president of a university where the values we have are teaching and learning, if I’m no t learning, then there’s something wrong there. So I just feel like it’s part of my responsibility to keep reading. Plus, I like it and it really provides something for my life that’s wonderful. I’ve always got something interesting to think about and hopefully by having this book club sort of thing with the SUU world…

Meredith: Yeah, that’s right.

Wyatt: Where we’re inviting all of our students who are home for the summer or those that are still in Cedar City or from the Cedar City community, our alumni who are spread out all over the world, this might be a fun way to connect and hold true to SUU’s motto, “Learning lives forever.” Once a T-bird, we’ll always be there for you, and course you don’t have to be a T-bird to join in with us. We want everybody to join.

Meredith: Yeah, non-T-birds can read these books too.

Wyatt: So, here’s our strategy. In a few minutes, we’re going to introduce the first book.

Meredith: That’s right.

Wyatt: And we’ve got Terryl Warner to help us with that, and then after everyone’s had a chance to read it at the end of June, we’ll do our second discussion. We’ll have one or two people from the book join us and we’ll just have a great discussion about the book. We don’t want this teaser to spoil the book, we want to get you kind of into it, and then after everyone who chooses to read it has read it or those who didn’t get a chance to read it but still want to hear about it, then we’ll talk, we’ll explore what we’ve learned from the book at the end of June. And then we’ll add a second, brief podcast which will be the teaser for 1984. That will be the end of June or the very first of July.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And leave July for reading 1984. At the end of July, we’ll bring the political science department chair of SUU in to help us explore this book.

Meredith: That will be fun.

Wyatt: And then in August, we’ll do the same thing with The Ghost Map and we’ve got a wonderful guest for that one, too, teed up.

Meredith: Great, well I’m looking forward to it. So you mentioned book one, so today’s the day that we kick off the teaser about book one. Book one is A Deadly Wandering, and as I mentioned to start with, you actually are quoted in this book, and we have a special guest joining us via phone today from northern Utah, from Cache County where she still works as a victim’s advocate.

Wyatt: We are happy to welcome Terryl Warner on our show this morning. Thank you for joining us, Terryl.

Terryl Warner: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be with you.

Wyatt: We’re going to be talking about the book A Deadly Wandering, and you’re one of the featured people in this book, Terryl.

Warner: I am.

Wyatt: In fact, when I look through the book, it’s written in an interesting way. Every other chapter is titled, “Terryl.” [All laugh]

Warner: Yes.

Wyatt: And why don’t you give us just the briefest introduction to what the book is about?

Warner: OK. The book A Deadly Wandering is about a young man named Reggie who was driving and went into oncoming traffic and hit a car and the two occupants of the car, who were literally rocket scientists, were killed. And the book then goes into the next couple of years of our prosecution of this young man. It goes into our personal lives, and it goes into the science of how our brains function when we are texting and driving, or texting.

Wyatt: Why don’t you tell us about the author, Matt Richtel?

Warner: Matt Richtel is a writer with The New York Times. He is also a best-selling author. He wrote…I met him when we were going through the prosecution of the case, and he came out, spent some time with us, and wrote a series of articles called “Driven to Distraction.” He then ended dup winning a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism and has become a friend of mine. He and his wife live in California. He’s an example of technology, because even though he lives in California, he writes for The New York Times.

Wyatt: Yeah, and I visited with him a few times when he was writing this book because he wanted to have me tell him something about you.

Warner: [Laughs]

Wyatt: So this is one of the few New York Time best-selling books that I’m actually in.

Meredith: Well, we should clarify that. In your days before you became a leader in higher education, you were a prosecuting attorney in northern Utah, so that’s why you’re quoted in this book is because even though it didn’t necessarily correspond with the time that you were in office there—you had already left—you know a lot of the players.

Warner: And his legacy is here.

Wyatt: Yeah, it’s a good time and it was really interesting. So the bottom line is, I think I know almost everybody in the book, and that makes it particularly interesting for me. But the way that Matt writes this book, everyone gets to know the characters very, very well.

Warner: Right.

Wyatt: How comfortable is that for you?

Warner: How comfortable was that for me?

Wyatt: Yeah.

Warner: Sharing my personal life was really, really hard. When we grow up in a situation of family violence, we learn to keep our mouths shut pretty quickly, and to have the world know the situation that I grew up in was really…it was really hard. It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done when Matt said, “I want to read your journals.” And I said, “Oh my heavens, nobody has read my journals. Not even my husband, my kids, I don’t want anybody to know what I had gone through.” And he came up and my kids and husband and I and Matt sat in my living room and read through my journals. We laughed, we cried, but to have everybody know about your personal life…I didn’t have a great personal life to share as a child and as a teenager and as a youth, so that was really hard.

Wyatt: Yeah, the book really delves into the story of your life and the story of Reggie’s life and others that are involved, which I think is really helpful to draw us as readers in. And talk about character development? He does such a great job at that.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: I’ve worked for you for years, Terryl, and after reading the book, developed a whole new appreciation for you.

Warner: Well thank you.

Wyatt: And I just kept thinking, “Wow, this must be hard to recognize that this is not a pleasant story to talk about—referring to your story—but still, for the reader, there’s so much to learn. That’s such an important thing.”

Meredith: Well, and it gives us an indication of how you ended up doing what you do for a living and why you play so prominently in the book, because this is not just professional for you, it’s personal victim advocacy.

Warner: Right. I’d like to hope that I’m the victim advocate that I didn’t have as a child growing up.

Meredith: Right.

Warner: I’d like to hope that that’s…what I envision I would have liked to have had at that time going through the years that we went through. I try to be that victim advocate.

Wyatt: Well, and I don’t think that…let me say that differently, I think that you are a great example of a person who can go through such trauma and not be a victim in the sense of you have really become a super successful, pleasant, happy, encouraging, uplifting person. You don’t wear “being a victim” at all. Nobody would know that.

Warner: Thank you. You know, I think that one of the reasons when Matt said, “We’re going to talk about this,” it took me days to get ready for that and I finally came to the conclusion that if my story helped one story realize that you can get through a difficult situation and persevere and be successful, I wanted that story out there. But I also wanted people to read that and say, “Oh my gosh, this is what a child or a teenager goes through in family violence.” So I hope that that message is out there. That we can succeed, because family violence has not stopped at all. I mean, it’s growing and we’re continuing to see an increase in family violence and people…it’s affecting everybody anymore. So I hope that my story will tell somebody, “It’s OK, you can still survive. You can succeed and you can thrive in life.”

Wyatt: Let’s move over to Reggie for just a minute. Can you give us just kind of an introduction to him?

Warner: Reggie was a young man, he was a good kid, he was an athlete, and he was driving going to work one morning and made a decision that forever altered his life and the lives of others around him. But he was a good kid. He is a good kid. He did well in school, he was athletic, he had a lot of friends, he was a popular kid. And his example is that sometimes, it doesn’t matter what your background is, you can still make a tragic decision that will forever alter lives. And that’s what I get from Reggie, was that this was a popular kid that did a terrible thing. And people don’t get up every day and go, “Today I’m going to go kill somebody.” He didn’t think that that morning, but that’s what happened.

Wyatt: Yeah, and as we move through the book, we get to see a really great story of how he tried to work through all this.

Warner: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Initially, not believing that it was possible…

Warner: Right.

Wyatt:...Denying it, coming to grips with what happened, working through it, and then really doing some amazing things at the end which we’ll leave to the readers to read, but that’s a wonderful story too, isn’t it?

Warner: It is. It’s a beautiful…it’s a beautiful story at that point.

Wyatt: The world is full of tragedy. There are so many tragic things going on and there is so much polarization. But this book is really timely for today it seems.

Warner: I believe so.

Wyatt: And there are two things that we would want a reader of this book to look for, in addition to what we’ve been talking about. Two things perhaps, one is attention. What is the science of attention? And this book is full of that science, isn’t it?

Warner: It is, but it’s at a level that readers are able to understand. It’s not such a scientific explanation that it goes over reader’s heads. It’s really a good explanation for the everyday person.

Wyatt: Yeah, it’s written on the common level. I got it. [Laughs]

Meredith: Yeah.

Warner: I did. And my brain at math and science, so…[Laughs]

Wyatt: So, we have these worries. Older people worry about millennials being addicted to technology, and I oftentimes say some of the older people are as addicted as the millennials. But this book really delves into addictions to technology, understand people with...whether it is an addiction or not, that’s one of the questions, isn’t it?

Warner: It is.

Wyatt: And can a person multi-task? What is multi-tasking? Can you do two things at once? Can you text and drive? What happens when your attention goes from one thing to another? I thought that was such a fascinating part of the book. And then the other piece of this is this whole story of redemption and forgiveness.

Warner: Right.

Wyatt: And so it’s interesting to get a book that is so tragic, so relevant, so current, so optimistic, so well-versed in science, and also presents such a beautiful picture of redemption, forgiveness, love. I think this is one of the books that everybody should read.

Meredith: Yeah. Another aspect that I found interesting was because it takes place in northern Utah, small town Utah, I think there’s often the opportunity that some people take as outside writers to paint the LDS culture of that part of the world as somehow foreign or unusual or odd, and I thought Mr. Richtel did a really pretty terrific job for someone who maybe doesn’t have that great of an understand of that culture and painting how important it was to Reggie that he go on an LDS mission, for example, and the meaning of that to a family in small town Utah and how important those milestones in church activity are, that for people that are not Mormon, might find to be odd. And I thought he painted it in a very fair, magnanimous and sympathetic way.

Wyatt: Yeah, interesting.

Warner: I agree. That was one thing that was really important to both Reggie and I that that be portrayed in a positive light. I think that a lot of times, the LDS church gets a lot of negative publicity about things, and I didn’t want that to happen. And I know Reggie didn’t either, and I think Matt did a really good job portraying the LDS culture up here in northern Utah.

Wyatt: Yeah, it becomes important because all of this has an impact on Reggie’s personal goals.

Warner: Right.

Wyatt: Life dreams. And this accident shatters those.

Meredith: It just gives us more character insight, in the same way that we had to delve into uncomfortable things in Terryl’s life to understand why she is where she is today. It was important to understand that background in Reggie’s life as well.

Wyatt: Well, what would be the last thing you would say to somebody that’s getting ready to read this book, Terryl?

Warner: I would say, plan on reading for a few hours, because what I hear is that it gets people hooked and that they can’t put it down.

Meredith: Which is a tiny bit ironic given the subject matter, but yeah, I agree. [All laugh] I was saying to President Wyatt, I started yesterday…well, I actually started about three weeks ago and got three chapters in, but I think I went from chapter four through 24 last night until about two in the morning. I had a hard time putting it down.

Wyatt: Well, thank you so much, Terryl. We appreciate you joining us today, and we’ll be back.

Warner: Thank you. I just have to tell you all, I didn’t even know what a podcast was. I am absolutely pathetic, non-technological, and I had to ask my daughter, “Now, what exactly is a podcast? I don’t really know what that is.” [All laugh] One day I’m going to get into the 21st century.

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. Today, we’ve had joining us by phone Terryl Warner, a victim’s advocate in Cache County, Utah and prominently featured in the book, A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel, one of the books that we’re going to be studying this summer as part of our summer reading list. Thanks so much for listening, we’ll be back again soon. Bye bye.