One book for students who don’t like to read

Choosing a single book for new students to read over the summer is not easy, writes Carolyn Foster Segal, who teaches English at Cedar Crest College, in Inside Higher Ed. Her  women’s college picked This I Believe, a selection of radio essays by famous and ordinary folks assembled by NPR. It’s a popular choice for colleges seeking a common reading experience, supplanting Tuesdays With Morrie. With lots of short snippets, it’s a perfect book for students who don’t like to read, a colleague explained.

 This time, the selection was to encompass five areas: leadership, civic engagement, global awareness, health and wellness, and career choices.

I enjoy reading short prose pieces and listening to them on the radio. (But then I also read around 100 full-length books each year, as well.) And it’s difficult to argue with a sample premise like “I believe in empathy” — the line is from Azar Nafisi’s “Mysterious Connections That Link Us All Together” — which is certainly important; besides, it would be churlish — and downright unempathetic — not to agree.

But why not put Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, with all of its connections — instead of this radio spot — into our students’ hands? It’s possible to argue that such a compilation exposes students — quickly — to a whole chorus of voices. And that is true. There’s a cacophony of voices here, on a wide range of subjects — from the pizza dude to God; from the virtues of morning prayer to the virtues of barbecue. And any one of these entries can be consumed and digested in far less time than the 15 minutes of fame that Warhol prophesied for everyone. Skimming the table of contents is like surfing the web.

The book’s brevity was one selling point. It also stresses leadership, which is in the mission statement, and leads to an obvious assignment:  Students can be told to write their own “This I Believe” pieces.

Segal  no longer wishes to know what her students believe.

 Indeed, if you teach freshman writing classes, or any upper-level writing classes, you are already aware that most of your students will do their best to wrench any topic around to the subject of just what it is they believe. No, a much better exercise would be to attempt to understand what someone else believes.

And why not ask students to share a novel or a full-length work of nonfiction, Segal asks. ” There is something engaging, enthralling, and perhaps even transforming about the experience of being swept away by the arc of a sustained narrative.”

There is for me. But, then, I like to read.

I think Reading Lolita in Tehran would be a terrific choice, especially for young women.

About Joanne


  1. dangermom says:

    “you are already aware that most of your students will do their best to wrench any topic around to the subject of just what it is they believe. No, a much better exercise would be to attempt to understand what someone else believes.”

    So very, very true. In a similar vein, I’m always frustrated by the belief that readings ought to be relevant to a college student’s life. College should aid a student to become relevant to the world, not the other way around.

    I like the “Lolita in Tehran” idea…

  2. “No, a much better exercise would be to attempt to understand what someone else believes.”

    Well, that’s precisely what the This I Believe project is all about.

    The essays are carefully selected and very well written. This is not a Chicken Soup for the Soul type of collection.

    Only a lazy, unimaginative instructor would use this material simply as a springboard to assign a write your own This I Believe essay.

    This I Believe is several cuts above Bird by Bird, The Stephen King book, and a number of other texts used in undergraduate writing courses.

    It’s natural for young people to want to remain in the world of their own experience and a good class would prod them to go beyond those limits and not simply dwell within them. No argument there. But targeting This I Believe as a text that affirms self-centered learning is taking aim at the wrong material.

    It happens to be excellent. The above criticism is wide of the mark.

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    Am I the only one thinking that going off to a liberal arts college (which is what Cedar Crest College appears to be, rather than something like MIT or CalTech) when you DON’T LIKE TO READ is just asking for trouble?

    Or that the college is doing something wrong with its admissions if most of the incoming class doesn’t like to read?

  4. Mark, good question.

    Some people develop a love of reading early in life.

    But some also develop it later in life, often in college.

    If a college admits a student who writes on his application that he doesn’t like books, he’s either terribly honest or stupid. Maybe both. If the college accepts such a student, it’s not a college with a large endowment.

  5. As I wrote in a blog post over 5 years ago:
    Bertrand Russell, however, had a different idea. According to one Kieran Egan, “Bertrand Russell, after his first disastrous experiment in organizing a school, observed that the first task of education is to destroy the tyranny of the local and immediate over the child’s imagination.”

    Russell is correct. The purpose of education is to get a child to see what’s beyond his own nose.
    Same goes for college.

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Our “one book for everyone” when I started college was “The Apology of Socrates”. It’s really a good jumping off point for discussing what the purpose of education really is. And it sent a message about what The College was about and what sort of citizens it expected to produce.

    I think assigning a very recent book (even “Reading Lolita”) to the incoming freshman still leaves them as slaves to their own time.

  7. The This I Believe essays are quite good for the first few days of teaching students how to conduct a seminar discussion. I also happen to use them as jumping off points for students writing their college essays. I don’t know as a college I’d advertise my intention to choose a book for non-readers — that’s just bizarre — but it is a fine book.

  8. If you’re looking for short pieces, why not assign Orwell’s many essays? They are wonderful examples of some of the best writing of the 20th century, they’re freely available over the internet and generally quite easy to read. Many of them, such as “Notes on Nationalism,” are still very relevant today and others have important historical context.

  9. Just got back from Virginia Tech orientation for Corsair Jr.and they will be reading the same book when they return to start classes next month.