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 Moore: One 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)