Common Reading Programs: Trends, Traps, Tips

Ashley Thorne

Five years ago I began what has become an annual study of common reading programs through the National Association of Scholars. The most recent edition was published last October, and covers 2013–2014.1 In this research, my co-authors and I aim at comprehensiveness—we included every college that we knew had a common reading program. We continue to add new programs as we learn of them. Our latest study covers 341 colleges and universities and the 231 books they assigned. Most of the books were published within four years of one another, and they deal with a narrow range of themes. A set “common reading” genre clearly exists.

When I look at the books assigned as college common reading these days, I notice a pervasive sameness among them. True, there’s a large role in classic literature for the concept of sameness. The comedy in A Comedy of Errors centers on the escapades of two sets of separated identical twins who are constantly being mistaken for one another. In A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton’s great resemblance to Charles Darnay sets the stage for him to do a far, far better thing than he had ever done. The Double, by Dostoevsky, is about a government clerk who is tormented by the presence of a doppelgänger who arrives in St. Petersburg and makes his life doubly miserable. People have thought a long time about the meaning of similarity. But sometimes similarity ceases to be intriguing and instead becomes merely homogenous.

Last year there were two books with almost the same plot line.2 Many of the titles repeated the same phrases. We had The Big Burn, The Big Thirst, and The Big Truck That Went By; In the Shadow of the Banyan, In the Shadow of Man, and Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats; The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, Into the Beautiful North, Beautiful Souls, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers. “Change the world” “save the world,” “shake the world,” and “cure the world” appeared in titles and subtitles. Two books even had the same cover art concept—a goldfish leaping out of a bowl full of goldfish into its own bowl. If I were a publisher intent on entering this market, I’d commission a book titled In the Shadow of the Big Beautiful World, with a cover photo of a goldfish orbiting the earth.

But reading is meant to open up your world and make it a much more interesting place. Too much sameness is too much of the same. Colleges with common reading programs tend to emulate one another. They make the mistake of assuming they should reach students where they already are instead of leading them to where they need to go.

Trends

I will comment here on the goals colleges have for common reading programs, the way these programs are set up, and the books that colleges are choosing.

Stated Purposes of Common Reading Programs

Not every college has a publicly listed rationale for its common reading program, but we found 239 that did, and we found that their goals/purposes generally fell into five categories, which we classified through looking at key words: (1) building community on campus, (2) setting academic expectations, (3) starting a conversation, (4) encouraging students to become involved in social activism, and (5) inspiring thoughtfulness or “critical thinking” (21–22).

These are qualities and experiences colleges feel students need to develop and have, and common reading is a way to try to meet those needs. Colleges are also sensing a need to fill the gap left by the loss of core curricula; common reading is a way for students in a particular class year to read at least one book in common and thus have something intellectual to share with one another.

Mechanics of Common Reading Programs

In examining how these programs are set up, we looked at several factors. First, we considered whether the reading was actually required. We found only two colleges (Florida International University and The King’s College) that test students on reading. Others ask students to turn in an essay or be prepared to discuss the book in small groups at orientation. An emerging trend is to tie the reading program in with first-year seminar courses. But on the whole, reading the book is technically optional. Colleges say students are “expected,” “required,” “invited,” “encouraged,” or “asked” to read the book, and then they try to create ways to persuade students to actually read it (13).

Second, we looked at whether the program was intended for freshmen (or as many colleges now say, “first-years”) or for all students attending the institution. Of the 341 colleges surveyed, only sixteen clearly stated that the book was intended to be read by the entire student body. On the whole, common reading programs are aimed at incoming freshmen (13).

Third, we gauged how many colleges invited the author to speak. At least two-thirds of colleges with common reading programs had the author speak on campus during the year in which the book was assigned (14). Some colleges have other events to promote the book, but the author’s visit is usually the main, if not the only, event.

Fourth, we observed that many colleges have yearlong themes accompanying their book assignments. For example, at Appalachian State University, the theme for 2012–2013 was “Muslim Journeys” and it assigned American Dervish. Florida Southern College’s theme was “Civilization and Environment” and it assigned The Hunger Games (16–17).

Books Assigned

The top books for 2012–2013 were The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot—on the first human cells to survive in vitro, which originated as a sample from a black woman’s cervical cancer cells in the 1950s; This I Believe, essays NPR collected from listeners on their personal life philosophies; and The Other Wes Moore, a story of how two people with the same name from the same background ended up with very different lives (39).

The publication dates of the books were overwhelmingly recent—only twenty-four of the 341 colleges assigned anything published before 2000. Put another way, 93 percent assigned books published in 2000 and later. That means the books were younger than the students—sometimes a lot younger. More than half of common reading assignments (51 percent) were published between 2010 and 2013. Only five colleges chose anything published prior to the twentieth century.

The focus on recent books helps explain why there is usually large turnover in the titles assigned from year to year. It’s a “flavor of the week” atmosphere. We found that 82 percent of this year’s titles were different from the previous year’s (6). Some books that were popular a few years ago, such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, have disappeared. I predicted that this would mean that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which has enjoyed top popularity for two years, would wane in 2014. In researching for this year’s edition of the study, that’s proven true. It’s a good incentive for Rebecca Skloot and other authors to keep publishing new books. It’s also a reason to consider older books that don’t go out of style so quickly. It’s worth noting that colleges’ top goal is “to build community.” If that community is to endure, it makes sense to assign works that connect students to the community of readers who came before and will arrive after them.

We looked at the genres of the books being assigned: 72 percent were memoirs, biographies, essays, or other nonfiction, while fiction, plays, and verse dramas comprised 28 percent (44).

Finally, we classified books by giving each one a single “subject category,” meaning the explicit and encompassing topic of a book. Books on multiculturalism, immigration, or racism were the most popular; an example from this category is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Books on social activism or social entrepreneurship such as Start Something That Matters, by Toms shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, were the next most popular category, followed by books on philosophy or spirituality, such as This I Believe (42–43).

Traps

Before addressing the traps colleges fall into when administering these programs, let me acknowledge that colleges face larger problems when trying to set up common reading. There are three systemic problems that afflict higher education today.

Inherent Barriers to Common Reading

The first barrier is that colleges no longer have core curricula. It is hard to have students read and discuss the same texts because the curricular infrastructure making that possible is no longer in place. The second goes along with this—today’s university is split into “silos.” Each office and department has its own way of doing things, and this fragmentation poses a challenge to those who want everyone to work toward a common goal. This is also the reason some colleges give for why they do not administer a test. The third barrier is a problem of admissions. Numerous common reading coordinators say that many of their freshmen enter college never having read an entire book. In the report I call this the “book virgin” problem. Because of the disparity in academic ability of students being admitted, it is difficult to set a standard that will work for everyone.

Mistakes Colleges Make

Given these larger inherent difficulties, there are choices colleges make I consider to be mistakes that contribute to the sameness among common reading selections. I have observed five of these traps.

The first is limiting choices to “accessible” books. Common reading coordinators often fear that students will be frightened off by a book that appears at all challenging or contains words they won’t understand. For that reason, they tend to stick with books they call “accessible,” and steer clear of older works, which are, by nature, harder to read. This is a trap because it condescends to students and withholds the opportunity to try a book of enduring importance that would connect them with past and future generations of readers.

Writing in the Williams College student newspaper, Michaela Morton, a freshman participating in the common reading program, said that the experience “turned out to be kind of like a bad blind date.” She compared reading the assigned book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, to a blind date with a twelve-year-old: “He’s kind of sweet. He’s funny….He’s growing up. But he’s not grown-up yet, no matter what the New York Times and Newsday say. He’s a little bit immature, a little too young for 18- and 19- and 22-year-olds.” Morton was hoping for something “that would challenge and provoke, not simply fulfill a rubric that designates it ‘D’ for diversity.” And she wasn’t just disappointed in the book, but also in Williams, for not knowing her (and her fellow students) well enough to choose a work with “a little more heft, a little more subtlety and depth, something that makes me think.”3

“Accessible” books are great for everyone once in a while. The Hunger Games and other titles assigned as common reading are real page-turners. But page-turners don’t always become important literature. Most don’t. College is supposed to be the place where students grapple with difficult ideas, test themselves, and climb higher intellectually than they did in high school—and the people selecting the book ought to keep that in mind.

The second trap is limiting choices to books with living authors. Colleges recognize that having an author speak on campus is an incentive for reading the book, and many authors today are excellent writers whose work students should read. But if the author cannot make it to campus or is no longer living, it doesn’t make a book less interesting or viable. And often, there are others who can speak on an author’s behalf. I’ll return to this in my recommendations.

The third trap is choosing a book because it fits with a progressive viewpoint. Most of the books chosen for common reading are actually not very political or contentious, but some are, and many of them have PC themes operating in the background. I encourage colleges to remember that there are at least two sides to every political issue. Better yet, I encourage colleges to choose books that less obviously fit into a political narrative.

The fourth trap is having large committees choose the book. The buzzword among coordinators is “buy-in”—in order to get buy-in from key departments, colleges fill the committee with someone to represent nearly every one. For example, North Carolina State University has thirty-two members on its common reading committee, including someone from the Associate Deans Council; the Office of International Affairs; the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity; the Office of Faculty Development; the College of Agriculture and Life Science; seven students including two first-years, a graduate student, and a multicultural student affairs student; two people from Parents and Families Services—and on and on.4 But broad representation is not the best recipe for success in choosing a book-in-common. Everyone who’s been on a large committee knows the larger the committee, the more political and unwieldy decision-making becomes. It also leads to important but less popular books getting out-voted.

Instead of trying to get someone from every possible department and demographic, colleges would do well to choose a small number of thoughtful and well-read people who confer, read the book(s) being considered, and come to a decision. That helps prevent the selection process from turning into a book popularity contest.

Finally, the fifth trap is selecting a recent nonfiction book that hasn’t stood the test of time. Several common reading choices have been exposed as wildly inaccurate—an embarrassment for the schools that assigned them. Recent examples include Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson, who lied about building schools for girls in Pakistan;5Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, a story glowing with praise for a man who turned out to be violent toward his ex-wife and landed in jail for trying to kill her;6 and The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard, by Stephen Jimenez, the details of which are now seriously in question.7

Recommendations

I’d like to close with some positive, practical recommendations regarding which books make good common reading selections, practices for choosing good books, and practices for administering a common reading program.

Recommended Books

The National Endowment for the Arts has a good list of recommended books under its initiative The Big Read.8 The National Association of Scholars has also compiled a list, offering reasons why each of the fifty books selected would make a good freshman summer reading option.9 Our list is not meant to be exhaustive and we hope to keep adding books, but offer it as a resource colleges can consult. I am also frequently asked for recommendations for a specific college or university, and in such cases I offer personalized suggestions outside our list.

Choosing the Book

Aim for a book that’s neither too long nor too short. “Too long” means a book that would defeat even the able, well-intentioned, and determined pre-freshman reader. No War and Peace. In a few cases we’ve recommended long works but specified that the college should assign students selections from the book. “Too short” means a work that would invite the pre-freshman to treat the assignment as a triviality, even though it isn’t. No Kennedy’s “Ask Not” inaugural address. Something the length, for instance, of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons—at two hundred pages in common typeface—seems about right.

Seek texts that are slightly over students’ heads, but not so far that they are beyond reach. Our recommended list excluded many works of classical antiquity on this basis. For example, Sophocles is best read with the guidance of an instructor. That’s true of some Shakespeare as well. Choosing the right difficulty level means knowing something about the students’ abilities and the kinds of books they will encounter in their regular coursework. I imagine books such as Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Huxley’s Brave New World, or James D. Watson’s The Double Helix wouldn’t be too hard but would stretch students a little. For colleges with high proportions of book virgins, I have some other suggestions.10

Seek works that are not profoundly cynical. Such books may belong in the college curriculum but offer a poor welcome to the pre-freshman, who needs a more positive introduction to college and taking that first foray into a study of life and all the world. That eliminates the works of Samuel Beckett and Nietzsche, for example. I’d also avoid the converse—sappy sentimentality—which rules out such books as This I Believe.

In fiction, look for books that exemplify elegance of language and a degree of complexity, along with moral seriousness, that portray human nature truthfully. Some of the many authors who do this well are Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Dickens, Conrad, and Fitzgerald.

In nonfiction, look for lucidly argued works that examine important ideas and writers who take their rhetorical task seriously. The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle will always be important. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is a little long but is a beautifully written, dramatic, well-paced portrayal of the calamity of the first month of World War I.

Every now and then, turn to a book with local interest. If you’re in Louisiana, try All the King’s Men, which is based loosely on the life and death of Louisiana governor and senator Huey P. Long. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead takes place in a fictional town based on Tabor, Iowa. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel on the life of a thrice-married Florida woman who kills her third husband in self-defense. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are perfect for a common read in Georgia. James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family richly depicts life in Knoxville, Tennessee, around 1915. 

Occasionally try pairing a modern and an earlier book and have students read both. Two novels that were assigned by separate colleges last year that would work well together are Edgar Allen Poe’s 1837 The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, and Mat Johnson’s Pym, a 2011 satiric fantasy inspired by Poe’s original about an African American literature professor.

Administering the Program

I recommend, first, that colleges test students on the book as part of the structure of a common reading program. Although common reading falls outside regular coursework at most colleges, passing a test on the book can be made a requirement for registering for classes. Colleges can impose administrative penalties on students who fail to meet nonacademic requirements, as when Oklahoma State puts a hold on course registration for any student who fails to pass and complete its sexual assault prevention course.11 Some colleges test students in other areas, such as language proficiency. And some still have swim tests as graduation requirements. Testing solves a host of problems that common reading encounters—starting with persuading all students to read the book.

Second, some colleges have hefty budgets for their programs, which have at times proven unsustainable.12 Most of the costs come from paying speakers’ fees to authors—which can total $30,000 (for Wes Moore’s visit to a Boston high school) for one short talk and travel expenses—and from purchasing the books in bulk to distribute to students.13 Colleges feel that if they don’t provide the book, few students will make the effort to purchase it on their own. Almost any classic work can be downloaded for free on iBooks or easily checked out at any library. Choosing a classic book saves students hassle and saves the school money.

One way to help students gain interest in an older book is to emphasize art from the regional setting and time period. For example, if you are assigning Dostoevsky, have students look at some nineteenth-century Russian art. If you assign The Great Gatsby, ask students to listen to twenties jazz. This helps draw students in and gives them a sense of the book’s and the author’s cultural milieu.

Host a screening of the movie version; new film versions of classic books are widely available. To avoid the possibility of students’ watching the movie before reading the book, choose a book with a film version coming out, say, the following spring. If you show a new film, invite the director and maybe an actor to speak on campus.

There are other alternatives for speakers when the author of a common reading selection is not living. Colleges can invite an expert who can speak authoritatively about the book. If The Decipherment of Linear B has been assigned, bring in an expert cryptologist. If it’s The Voyage of the Beagle, invite an expert marine naturalist to campus. Have a Dickens or Melville scholar speak to students. Or follow the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s lead and bring in an Edgar Allen Poe impersonator. There are also skilled impersonators of Lincoln, Twain, and Teddy Roosevelt, among other notable figures.

When I was an undergraduate, I directed a three-day all-campus event that was the culmination of our common reading of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Our theme that year was “difficulty.” Leading up to the event, we had faculty members staging dramatic readings of the book. Students organized small-group study sessions before the test on the book. During the event, we ran a student art contest, a series of debates, and an open mike night for students performing music and stand-up comedy. Our provost (now NAS president Peter Wood) wrote and performed an original rap based on the book. With a little creativity, getting into an older book as a campus community can really be a delight.

Hungry for More

David Clemens, a professor at Monterey Peninsula College in California, sent me an article by Joshua Converse, a former student in his “Introduction to Literature” course. He and his fellow students arrived “hungry for something real,” Converse wrote, and “[o]ver the course of weeks the once-flat landscape of Literature delineated by context, race, class, gender, and the quotidian use of language started to shift beneath us; the World of Ideas opened. We learned how to really read. We were on fire to talk about it.”14

Converse was so galvanized by his first encounter with these books that he and others in the course began meeting to read more on their own:

We read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. We read Sappho. We felt and spoke as if we had rediscovered some long-forgotten treasure abandoned by the generation before….The students I came into contact with seemed to react as I had. We felt we’d missed out on something essential by not being exposed to these works earlier.15

In August 2014, the New York Times printed a story by journalist Frank Bruni on Kimberly Lantigua, who with fourteen other high school students, most of them minority teenagers hoping to be the first in their families to go to college, met for three weeks over the summer for a great books boot camp sponsored by Columbia University. Each participant was paired with a Columbia undergraduate mentor, and together under the guidance of Columbia professor Roosevelt Montás they worked through Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.

Bruni wrote that the course

assumes that these kids, like any others, are hungry for big ideas. And it wagers that tugging them into sophisticated discussions will give them a fluency and confidence that could be the difference between merely getting to college and navigating it successfully, all the way to completion, which for poor kids is often the trickiest part of all.16

Bruni continued:

Montás also wants for these kids what he wants for every college student (and what all of us should want for them as well). If the seminar is successful, he told me, they wind up seeing their place on a continuum that began millenniums [sic] ago.17

Both of these stories use “hungry” to describe students—they’re hungry for something real, they’re hungry for big ideas. Prof. Montás and Prof. Clemens understand that reading the books that have shaped our culture are what feeds that hunger and opens the world to students.

Those books take students out of the biases of their own generation and give them something different from what they would have chosen for themselves. They offer a welcome break from the sameness everywhere else.

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