On Beach Books

Bruce Gans

Bruce Gans served as a professor of English for many years at the City Colleges of Chicago where he founded the Great Books Curriculum. The Curriculum, which became the model for similar programs around the United States, was funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education, and publicized through front page coverage in the New York Times and the Chicago TribuneSymposium, the student-written intellectual journal he founded, received a commendation from the Wall Street Journal and won an award from Columbia University. Professor Gans has published widely in journals ranging from American Scholar to Playboy and has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for his fiction and an Illinois Art Council prize for his literary criticism.


The question of what books can best benefit incoming freshmen is part of the larger question of what books colleges should assign in general, and what is the goal of the education they provide. Without forgetting this larger question, we can focus on the narrower topic of what specially selected book colleges should recommend that students read over the summer in order to equip them with something they can talk about together when they arrive on campus.

Now, as an ice breaker, there is a limited amount that can be done by one-book programs that have no effect on a grade point average. Adolescents who have just left home for the first time are of necessity focusing every particle of their mental energy on such things as concealing their anxiety and homesickness, figuring out where their classes are located, and concealing the hormonal pandemonium unleashed by sudden immersion into the hordes of completely unfamiliar, painfully attractive members of the opposite sex, practically all of whom are unaware of their existence or uninterested in them. Remaining scraps of conversational mental energy are consumed by such topics as their favorite bands and the traumatic injuries they have suffered from their emotionally disturbed and incompetent parents. If reading a book will not count toward any grade, it will not, as a rule, top a student’s list of must-do tasks. To have any hope of success, a one-book initiative must at least bear a firm relationship with reality.

This, unfortunately, most such programs do not have. In the first place, colleges use these one-book assignments as a tool to form student friendships and discover the essential commonalities that make up a community—and in doing so ignore the rule of human nature that this is something people do only voluntarily, in their own way, and from within. It is impossible to create friendship and community by a top-down administrative directive. You cannot use a book to manufacture friends.

This misguided attempt, however, is not the only misalignment from reality underlying one-book college reading programs. Another is colleges’ practice of basing their selections on superficial, philistine, false assumptions and working definitions. One false assumption is that it is entirely the institution’s responsibility for students to read a recommended book, and therefore that the college must market it like a perfume or a light beer. This assumption, which shortchanges students by not making them responsible for their own education, in turn means advertising such books as politically correct, relevant, possessing the cachet of fleeting popularity—and, above all, certified to be free of thematic and linguistic complexity. The decision to treat students as irresponsible consumers ensures that the one book they will read together will lack intellectual challenge, advanced vocabulary, and a range of reference that can introduce students to sophisticated cultural literacy.

A further misalignment proceeds from colleges' misguided definition of relevance—that a work must be set in the present and contain a multiplicity of details students can "relate to," because these same details exist in their own lives. In other words, relevance is not defined as being able to initiate student readers into the profoundest depths of the human condition and thereby into understanding their own deepest fears and longings. The great and enduring works of literature can initiate students so, and set them on the path to an examined life that is the goal of a liberal education; books whose “relevance” is defined by their ability to mirror what the daily particulars of students’ lives cannot. The goal of most one-book initiatives is divorced from what it should be—providing incoming freshman a thin edge of the wedge into the enlightenment that a liberal education offers, and thereby educating and preparing them for college-level reading while at the same time challenging them by presenting them with academic standards worthy of their respect.

By not being assigned great and enduring books, students are also cheated of the additional benefit of the opportunity to enlarge their vocabulary, and hence of their ability to read ever more complex thought. Words, after all, are each the incarnation of an idea. The more simplified the language and ideas, the more the intellectual impoverishment. George Orwell in 1984 presents this problem with overwhelming force and unsurpassed insight in his fictional language of Newspeak, where Oceania’s masters are deliberately creating a stunted language so as to make their subjects incapable of independent thought. Tragically, the struggle against our own Newspeak now falls upon the few thousands of American teachers, who challenge their pupils to increase their vocabulary, and thus fight to increase their students’ ability to think. It is a struggle made harder because these teachers must also fight the resistance and resentment of the majority of their colleagues, who have long since chosen to ease their own professional lives by following the easy path of acquiescence in dumbed down pedagogy and curriculum.

Similarly, by not assigning great literature set in an unfamiliar era, students are robbed of the cultural and historical initiation into the knowledge of the magnificently strange past that so often leads to new and expanded realms of imaginative curiosity. They are likewise bereft of the basic cultural literacy such knowledge provides, and which is essential for informed participation in humanistic inquiry.

Worse, to the degree the selected books covertly bear the imprimatur of political correctness, these books double as a guidebook to the speech taboos students must obey in polite collegiate society. These noxious and intimidating college taboos are already pernicious, both because acceptance is paramount to any adolescent and because in college they operate before students graduate, get jobs, start a family, and have to choose which neighborhood to live in and where to send their kids to school—in other words, before they have come to live in reality and so inevitably discovered that political correctness is so much hypocritical, morally smug, socially destructive, condescending cant. In the meantime, it is a disservice to them to provide institutional sanction to classic adolescent closemindedness. Yet it need hardly be added that such books are selected to reinforce the stridently espoused views of the faculty and administrators—views which upon any close examination normally bear no relationship to how students (or even the faculty or administrators themselves) ultimately will live their lives or further their careers. The priority given to pseudo-pieties over preparation for actual life can hardly be said to conduce to student welfare.

By avoiding the assignment of the greatest enduring literature, colleges also do students a very serious disservice by not giving them these books when they are ripest to read them. Freshmen are to a far greater degree than adults full of intense emotional vulnerabilities, volatile insecurities, and painful sensitivities—and therefore are the perfect readers for great books. Such books in any era present those elements of the human condition that exist everywhere and always—deep and corrosive loneliness, rejection in love, a mind alienated, injustice, evil, powerlessness, and manipulation. Books become great and enduring because they are the ones that always have most deeply moved, inspired, and comforted their readers. No literature matters until the heart is touched—and there is no reader with a heart so ready to be touched as a freshman. When their hearts are ready, a college should also be ready to provide them the mental tools with which to grasp such literature, so that they may embrace it. This is a main mission of an undergraduate liberal education; it is profoundly, criminally negligent to make anything short of a rigorous effort to provide that opportunity to students. It is educational malfeasance to permit a student to spend four years in college and come out of it equipped with nothing more than a set of superficial, contemporary platitudes.

It is essential, therefore, that no area involving deep emotional truth or the most fundamental and universal human instincts be off limits when a college recommends a book to incoming freshman. The more profound the book’s matter, the more students will be liberated from the superficial and usually false definitions of relevance fed to them at present by their colleges. Instead they will be able to enter into the transcendent knowledge that they are all fellow members in the human condition, and learn to recognize as brothers and sisters all the generations who have come before them.

A last word must be said about an objection colleges often cite to avoid the assignment of great literature—that the students will not be able to read it. Now, I would be the last to denigrate the field of literature by suggesting that it requires anything less than a serious and professional level of study in order to read, analyze and appreciate it fully, or to say that freshman are already capable of approaching a literary text at the level. But to claim that incoming freshman are incapable of a lively and intelligent appreciation of any great literature is not only grossly dismissive of students’ capacities but also preposterously untrue. The claim suggests that those college personnel who make it have never read enduring literature, are unfamiliar with or afraid of it, have a political agenda to inculcate, or haven't the aptitude to grasp its beauties and rewards.

My teaching career was devoted to assigning Great Books to community college composition and literature classes, to constructing campus-wide Great Books Curricula on several community college campuses, and to founding Symposium, an award winning, scholarly Great Books journal entirely written by students. I know that some of the classics are not immediately accessible, and I have learned from experience that there is an art to bringing students to grasp authors such as Thucydides, Plutarch, Shakespeare, and Swift. But having said this, it is also true that students can enjoy and understand other classics with scarcely any effort at explication of the ideas by the teacher. It is not the students’ capabilities that limit instruction in the great books, but the willingness and readiness of professors to teach them. Where professors are ready and willing to teach such texts, the benefits are immeasurably greater than in teaching dumbed-down college curricula.

A particularly egregious example of such dumbing down is the assignment of comic books (euphemistically, graphic novels) to incoming freshman and undergraduates. We all have every right to read comics and graphic novels at our leisure, and perhaps such works may even be profitably studied in college courses on Graphic Arts or Popular Culture. There is obviously a market for such works and no doubt some students can be trained in college to make a living producing them. But the goals of reading serious literature are far too fundamental and crucial to be satisfied by such productions. Serious literature possesses the unique and indispensable capacity to articulate the most complex human experience and thought, with the highest level of eloquence, precision, and beauty. To suggest a graphic novel can be mentioned in the same breath as Proust and Austen is to expose such an advocate as a fool and philistine of obscene proportions. Actually to teach a graphic novel as an example of great literature is to illustrate how criminally colleges have dumbed down their curricula.

And so lastly, in the hopes if not the confidence that future college one-book summer reading programs may be better served, below is a list of books that colleges can use to spare a generation from cluttering their minds with the currently offered politically correct ephemera. They include classics of Greece and Rome, examples of the great writings of France, Russia, England and America, and—for great works are still being written, and the most discerning critical spirit can recognize such greatness in the here and now—modern novels published in the last generation. These recommendations may also be used to encourage private reading–that solitary communion with an author where reading is most intimate and most moving. I have taught practically all to undergraduates. They teach well. It is not impossible to spark a love of great literature in the young; these books have done so, and can do so again.

Satire and Comedy

Lysistrata by Aristophanes

Candide by Voltaire

Magic Christian by Terry Southern

The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Ivan Chonkin by Vladimir Voinovich

Sneaky People by Thomas Berger



Art of Living by Epictetus (Sharon Lebell, translator)

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway



Apology of Socrates by Plato

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller



The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym



Washington Square by Henry James

Bel Ami by Guy Maupassant

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe


Crimes of Human Evil

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Night by Eli Wiesel

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitysn



New Grubb Street by George Gissing

The Hamlet by William Faulkner

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith


No Category

 “Indian Jugglers” and “The Fight” by William Hazlitt

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Three Years by Anton Chekhov


Image Credit: The Yorck Project; Public Domain; {{PD-1996}}

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