The Summer Reading List

In an earlier post, I mentioned how the “teaching” of literature never worked for me.  Rather than allow me to read and form my own conclusions, my teachers and professors usually insisted that their interpretations (original or not) were definitive, an attitude reinforced by examinations that might one day impact my economic life at least.  As a consequence, I lost interest in almost all reading that wasn’t required for my studies and profession.  (One exception that began in law school and continued until the magazine ceased publication was National Lampoon.  I still have 30-40 copies in a drawer somewhere.)  I believe that another, deadlier damper on the joy of reading is the summer reading list.

The summer before my freshman year in college, I was supposed to read five books.  The only ones I recall now are Gideon’s Trumpet by Anthony Lewis and one of Salinger’s later novels, Franny and Zooey, I think.  I didn’t want to read any of them, and settled on a light skim a few days before classes began.  If there was an agenda behind the selection of the books, I was unaware of it.  Today, agendas are front and center, and I can’t think of anything less likely to cause me to read a book than somebody else’s agenda.

To begin with, it’s no longer necessarily a list.  There are exceptions (Yale, Stanford, Texas), but many schools now select a single book that incoming freshmen are expected to read.  At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the chosen book for 2013 was Home by Toni Morrison.  Among the criteria for its selection was that it “[address a] theme/topic that is applicable to students themselves (i.e., societal issues).”  The “Common Book” at UCLA is Pedro and Me, a graphic novel by MTV’s Judd Winnick that was released in 2000.  It was chosen so that students would have a chance to “[s]hare and understand diverse perspectives in a respectful way,” “[e]xplore their role in a just society,” and “[c]onsider critical action steps that can be taken in response to their Common Book experience.”  Regardless of the worth of these two books, who believes that any 18-year-old wants to spend part of his last real summer pondering the “societal issues” that he will encounter at breakfast (and every other waking hour) for the rest of his life.  We’re told that today’s college students are less than engaged–does it start with the summer reading list?

A few colleges seem to agree.  The University of Chicago has no list.  Others go out of their way to appeal to a substantial bloc of freshman.  Gamers, for instance–the summer book at George Washington University, where I spent my freshman year in college, is Reality Is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal.  The website announcing the book closes with “We’re excited for you to join us as we discuss McGonigal’s compelling argument for gamification.”  If they can be lured away from their Game Boys, maybe the gamers at GWU will actually read it.

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