One Book, But Why That Book?

In the last decade a large number of colleges and universities have initiated a “community reading” program, where everyone in a university and its neighboring community is required or strongly encouraged to read one book and discuss it over a series of events in an academic year.

In principle the One Book idea sounds great.  Even as core curricula in higher education are being eviscerated, this appears to be an effort to have a shared intellectual experience on issues that are central to the missions of each participating university.

The practice, however, has not met that potential.  As Harold Bloom put it, “I don’t like these mass reading bees… It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once.”  Of course, we don’t have to select the book equivalent of Chicken McNuggets, but in practice that’s what universities appear to be doing when they choose their One Book.

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has a report that documents what books universities actually choose based on a review of One Book programs at 245 universities and colleges.  The results are incredibly disappointing.  Rather than choosing high quality and intellectually stimulating books, universities tend to pick current, shallow, popular books. In particular the NAS report finds:

First, almost 90% of the books selected were published since January 2000.  If important works tend to stand the test of time, almost none of the One Books have passed that test.  Once you look at the list of what was selected, I think it’s safe to bet that almost none of them will be read a hundred years from now.  Rather than exposing the university community to enduring truths or works of enduring quality, the One Book programs almost always picks a topic that is likely to be a passing fad or a disposable work.

Second, the topics are remarkably skewed toward what is considered politically correct.  Out of the 245 selections, 58 were on African American themes, another 18 on African themes, 10 on Native American themes, 7 on Latino themes, 5 on East Asian themes.  24 One Books were about environmentalism, 10 about Hurricane Katrina, 10 were comic books or graphic novels, and 8 were self-help books or about the pursuit of happiness.

Third, memoirs and biographies dominated the list.  There were 79 memoirs and 62 biographies, more than half of the total.  Why so many memoirs?  The NAS report answers:

… memoirs are “a genre familiar to students.” In high school English courses, students are taught to base their interpretation of works of literature on their own personal experiences. A recent study on high school literary study finds that this emphasis on the personal “may be contributing to the high remediation rates in post-secondary English and reading courses.”

Training students to write from the perspective of personal reflection gives them a taste for more of the same. This is one explanation for the popularity of the memoir in common reading programs. Another is that our society has an appetite for true stories. The growing number of reality TV shows is evidence of this. Getting to hear from the author in person at a scheduled campus speech is part of the allure of the memoir. The emphasis on memoir may also reflect the rise of post-modern sensibilities in American higher education. A memoir often presents “my truth,” rather than “the truth.” It is a way of asserting the primacy of self and the importance of opinion as trumping common judgment, authority, and hard-won facts.

The most popular One Book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks(2010) by Rebecca Skloot, which was selected at 39 of the 245 institutions.  The NAS report describes the work:

The book does make a history of complex scientific research accessible to average readers, and Skloot explains biological jargon in simple terms. Readers will come away from the book having learned new things, but the writing itself is journalistic, not intellectual. Judging by what they say about it, some colleges seem to have chosen The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in part because it can be read as a story of racial injustice.

Tied for the next most popular is Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which was selected by 9 institutions. Wikipedia summarizes the plot:

 It tells the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the Syrian-American owner of a painting and contracting company in New Orleans who chose to ride out Hurricane Katrina in his Uptown home. After the storm he traveled the flooded city in a secondhand canoe rescuing neighbors, caring for abandoned pets and distributing fresh water. Soon after the storm, Zeitoun was arrested without reason or explanation at one of his rental houses by a mixed group of National Guardsmen and local police. He was not immediately charged with a crime but was imprisoned for 23 days without having stood trial. During that time he was accused of terrorist activity presumably because of his ethnicity, was treated inhumanely, and was refused medical attention and the use of a phone to alert his family. His wife and daughters, staying with friends far away from the city, only knew that he had seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth.

Also selected by 9 institutions was This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, which is a self-help book by Jay Allison and Dan Gedimen.  Seven institutions picked The Other Wes MooreOne Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore.  NPR summarized the plot:

 In the book, author Wes Moore tracks his own life, alongside the fate of another man of the same name.

While both Wes Moores grew up in poverty in Baltimore, the two men had dramatically different fates: The author became a Rhodes Scholar, while the other Moore is serving a life sentence in prison for murder.

And 6 universities or colleges chose No Impact Man by Colin Beavan about a New York City family that attempts to have no impact on the environment for an entire year by buying nothing newly made, producing no non-compostible trash, and only buying food produced within 250 miles of their apartment.

Another 6 chose The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, which Wikipedia says “is a novel for young adults written by Sherman Alexie. It is told in the first-person, from the viewpoint of Native American teenager and budding cartoonist Arnold Spirit, Jr. (better known by the nickname “Junior”). Detailing Arnold’s life on the Spokane Indian Reservation and his decision, upon encouragement from a reservation high school teacher, to go to an all-white high school in the off-reservation town of Reardan, Washington, the novel deals with issues such as racism, poverty, and the following of tradition.”

If you didn’t notice Shakespeare, Camus, Ellison, or Plato on the list, you’d be right.  But the NAS helpfully compile a list of 37 suggested books that includes these authors and would be far better for One Book programs.

As the old United Negro College Fund commercial used to say, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  So is the opportunity for everyone at a college or university to read and discuss a quality book.

(edited for typos)

9 Responses to One Book, But Why That Book?

  1. MOMwithAbrain says:

    Education is all about INDOCTRINATION now. Until we get honest about that, it will continue.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    When I was at UVA they made incoming first years do this. My year it was Hesse’s Siddhartha. Not Plato, but not a bad choice as these things go. It was an attempt to keep both the multiculturalists and the real educators happy, and it more or less worked. The mandatory discussion session was worthless, but I got something out of the book.

  3. Niki Hayes says:

    First, as an elementary principal in Seattle, WA, from 2000-2004, I saw parents of my 5th grade students come back from a middle school orientation absolutely furious over a spiel given by the school’s librarian to the prospective parents. (We had an open admissions policy at the time, so parents could choose whatever school they wanted for their child if there were room in the school.) The librarian had proudly announced that no books written prior to 1990 were in the library. The books were to be about relevance, she said, to children’s lives today. It was about making our schools “child-centered,” which, we now see, has turned them into a narcissistic generation. Shame on us for letting this happen.

    Second, Sherman Alexie has made a great living off of being an angry American Indian man. I was also the principal on the Spokane Indian Reservation in the early 1990’s and his mother worked with the school district. I heard stories of how his anger grew in the predominantly white school in Reardon. I can tell you the prejudice toward Indian kids in surrounding communities was real and it was mean, but Sherman didn’t always help the situation. The hope was that he would get past carrying around the sack of rocks of anger that weighed him down. I don’t think he ever did.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    I just heard UVA still has all first years read a book, and recently they did Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. That’s a gutsball choice for a school with an active Greek life. Kudos!

    • Minnesota Kid says:


      The summer before my freshman year at the University of St. Thomas I (and other incoming freshmen in the honors program) had to read five books:

      The Last Days of Socrates
      Pride and Prejudice
      The Double Helix
      The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

      I guess universities have gone soft.

  5. Kara Lane says:

    It reminds me of some of the bestseller lists you see these days – not always a lot of depth but always “of the moment.” I suppose that is what sells. I would also guess the colleges gravitate to the politically correct in fear of offending any of their alumni.

    I would be curious to hear what top 3 high quality and intellectually stimulating books you (or your readers) would propose as options for the One Book idea?

    • Greg Forster says:

      Actually, the alumni are almost always the only constituency of the university that’s pushing back against political correctness.

      There’s a reason we keep mentioning Plato in this discussion. The Apology of Socrates is the obvious choice here. From the very beginning, Socrates has always attracted the young minds. That was definitely by design; he intentionally speaks to their deepest longings. You really have to be at least 30 to read Aristotle, but not Socrates. Plus, it’s short!

      Brave New World is ripe for rediscovery. Speaks to the most pressing issues of our time, in particular the issues college kids should be prodded to think about; youth-oriented, easily accessible – and short!

      C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man also opens up these issues, and it speaks directly and specifically to the college education context. Plus . . . short!

      If you really want every freshman to read it with some benefit, that’s the level to shoot for. But if a bright and self-motivated freshman asked me what he should be reading I’d have a different list.

      • Kara says:

        Thanks for the feedback. I’ve read The Apology of Socrates and The Republic by Plato, but haven’t read Brave New World or The Abolition of Man. So what would you recommend to a bright and self-motivated freshman? My youngest stepson is just a couple years away from college and he certainly meets that description!

  6. Greg Forster says:

    Good gravy. That would depend a lot on the person. How into reading great books is he? I mean, if you give him the Republic or something on that scale, will he actually read it?

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