Farewell to Beach Books

David Randall

The National Association of Scholars will not publish any further editions of its annual Beach Books report.

NAS began its annual report on college common readings in 2010, and has published reports covering the decade since. We have anatomized, with increasing detail, both the progressive skew of the books selected and the precise administrative means which virtually guarantee the choice of progressive, recent, mediocre non-fiction as the standard college common reading. We have also identified Better Beach Books as an alternative, and made recommendations for reform—both the dramatically aspirational and the more modest recommendations to adopt best existing practices within the professional cohort of common reading selection committees.

College common readings do usefully encapsulate a great deal of what NAS cares about in higher education. We favor a proper core curriculum—and common readings are a sad remnant of the urge to have college students all read together the best works of Western Civilization. We criticize the intrusion of higher education administration into the domain of the faculty—and college common readings, the books that introduce students to college expectations, are overwhelmingly chosen by administrators who are uninterested in learning for its own sake, and evince no great knowledge of good books, much less great ones. We criticize progessives’ politicization of higher education, and college common readings skew heavily to the left. We especially criticize the transformation of colleges into vessels for social justice activism, and far too many common readings are chosen to inspire progressive activism.

Yet we confess that by now we have little more to say on the subject. We have informed the public in detail about what is wrong with the current common reading genre. We have given our advice to common reading committee members—and we are delighted that some of them appear to be listening to our counsel, since the number of classic books (defined as pre-1980) increased by 50% last year—albeit to less than 4% of the total selections. This is a reasonable point to bow out of this project.

We know that some of our readers are very interested in the sheer amount of data we have supplied. We will continue to keep our reports live on our website, and we will be glad to answer any questions from researchers about further information in our databases that has not appeared on the website. (We didn’t reserve much.) We direct researchers who wish to collate our data with data about more recent years to an annually updated Penguin Random House webpage, which does a good job of collecting information about each year’s college common readings.

We may continue to make the occasional comment on college common readings.

For now—there is cause for hope. This year, both Purdue University and Sweet Briar College assigned Homer’s Odyssey. The University of New Haven’s Honors Common Read is Sophocles’ Antigone, and Bard College’s Language and Thinking Program assigned three plays by Sophocles—Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus. These colleges’ choices of common readings demonstrate that the flame of higher education is still alive in America.

For that, we are grateful.

Photo by Gonard Fluit on Unsplash

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