What colleges ask new students to read

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Politically-themed books published since 1990 dominate summer “common reading” lists for incoming college students, according to Beach Books 2012-2013, the National Association of Scholars’ annual report.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — about scientific research using a black cancer victim’s cells — was the most popular book by far for the second year in a row.

Reading the same book is supposed to build a sense of community among new students and provide something to discuss in orientation. But “so-called ‘common reading’ programs have become a tool for orienting students to progressive causes,” said NAS president Peter Wood.

The dominant themes in these books are race, gender, class, the evils of capitalism, and the ubiquity of oppression.

. . The popularity of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for example, is based on its depiction of the American medical establishment as racist.”

Very few science books are chosen for common reading, the report finds. That suggests that “The Immortal Life owes its popularity not to being a book about science but to being a book about science whose subjects—the Lacks family—happen to be black and poor and furnished with a victimhood narrative.”

I think that’s an accurate description of the book, which would have been better if it had been a lot shorter.

Social justice, sustainability, diversity and economic justice are four major themes in common-reading books.

NAS lists 50 recommended books for common reading programs including Flatland, Camus’ The Plague and Augustine’s Confessions. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, about the denizens of Brook Farm, and Conrad’s Under Western Eyes look good to me.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Maybe I need to re-read the book and I agree with your assessment that it could have been a lot shorter, but I don’t think the book owes it’s popularity to themes about racism. I think it’s a pretty readable book that works across curricula.

  2. Kirk Parker says:

    Under Western Eyes — yes yes YES! A very underappreciated book.