Eye-Catching Image, Specific Subtitle: One Man, or A Woman, A Formula, and The Extraordinary Journey to Save the Campus Reads Book

Any disparaging puns are unintentional I SWEAR!

I’m a member for my university’s campus reads program.  Like a lot of schools, for the past five years we’ve selected a book to be given to all incoming first-year students—and plenty of faculty and returning students—to foster academic community.  It’s a very nice idea, and I’m behind the sentiment completely—I, you know, being someone who, I assert, believes in Reading, and Books, and Sharing, and, um, College.  And Reading!  There is just one small problem.

It’s nearly impossible to pick a book.

You’d think with approximately one zillion books in print that it would be a snap.  But to keep the costs down, we need paperback.  To fulfill part of the mission, we need a book with a theme of diversity or social justice.  To keep students interested, and to keep open the possibly of bringing the author to campus, as we did twice, the book should be relatively recent (but not so recent as to be in hardcover only; see stipulation 1), and the author needs to be alive.  (Although bringing a dead author to campus would surely also keep students interested.)  If the book is too long, or too esoteric, or too technical, or too mature, or too advanced, students won’t read it, since it’s not always enforceable homework, per se.  If the content is potentially controversial, parents—and possibly students—will complain.  

Think, then, of cost, diversity, context, length, content, and potential disagreement—to say nothing of actual quality or literary merit—it’s like a Ven diagram with seven circles:

This doubles as my future album cover

The one book that I felt was perfect and championed—the .001% overlap in the Ven Diagram of programmatic strictures— was Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, a powerfully written and researched nonfiction narrative of one family’s experience in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  But the book’s strength did not come from the ready-made fodder of disaster; it came from what it subtly, increasingly argued to be the intersection between natural and human-made disaster, and the domestic consequences of the War on Terror’s collision of religion and politics.  Of course, some students didn’t like it, and at least one parent complained, but, for me, it was perfect.  And, unfortunately, perhaps unique.

The publishing industry, though, seems to have smelled this niche opening.  (Ew, sorry.) Lots of catalogues, and even whole conferences, have crept up devoted to choosing and fostering the campus read.  So far, so good.  The problem, though, is that based on the known constraints, they all are starting to sound alike.  When a formula works—good looking, non-sparkly vampires in the modern world; what superheroes would be like in real life; peanut butter and jelly; twelve bar blues; schools for wizards—I’m totally there.  But when it doesn’t, the results seem not just predicable, but trite, regardless of the topic or intentions.

And the formula the industry has devised seems cribbed from their initial best sellers.   Before I began coordinating University Seminar (required class for all first-semester students), for years all first year students read Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson.  Yes, yes, lots of people love it.  As it happens, it is one of my least favorite books.  We replaced it with The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them.  Better: it engaged in student voices, involved a school, brought in class and race issues (unlike Albom, who seems insulated and vacuous) and makes death seem dangerous (unlike Albom, whose paunchy prose and insufferable attitude makes his book the braindead version of Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich).  

Two years later, we used Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson. Mortenson’s subsequent scandal aside—this was before it broke—the formula’s seams were already showing and wearing thin: an overwritten account, from the perspective of a white, privileged person, about  wild success, despite the haters, in helping others less fortunate (Morrie is just old, but as the genre drags on, the needy are young and dark), while also learning valuable lessons in humanity and humility that the writer is now virtuously passing onto you, dear readers, for what I think was at least $15,000 a pop in speaking fees, to say nothing of the hundreds (for some schools, thousands) of books pushed.

By now, though, we’re entering the decadent stage of this peculiar genre.  I don’t claim to have read all of the books below, but who can?  No, don’t judge a book by its cover, but what about its cover, title, subtitle, blurb, and, um, content?  All of these were pulled from the same catalogue, and each essentially plays Mad Libs with the titles, worth repeating here, of Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson; The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them; and Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time.

How about these?

Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference

An Unquenchable Thirst:  One Woman’s Extraordinary Journey of Faith, Hope, and Clarity

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness

A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School

Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother

Gertruda’s Oath: A Child, A Promise, and A Heroic Escape During World War II

Make the Impossible Possible: One Man’s Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary

Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood

Black Hearts:  One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death

Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers

And the winner for longest title:

The World is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea . . . A Remarkable Story of Faith, Family, and Forgiveness

Now, let me emphasize: these books may be important.  Some are probably even fine.  Stories of triumph over adversity, of courage, of inspiration, are, for the most part, a good thing. Several books attempt to allow sometimes-silent people an opportunity to tell their story.   

And yet—messages are not enough.  Books are not meaning -filled syringes or lofty content-delivery systems.  If Zeitoun had been called A Mighty Big Wave: A Man, an Extraordinary Voyage, and an Incredible Story of Survival and Reunion—and the writing and message matched—I would not have pushed for it.  In fact, Zeitoun is not a success story or feel-good read at all.  Its language is always lean and clear, never sentimental; its ending, equivocal; part of its message, dark and critical.  In the end, these books above traffic in the sensations and trappings of war, danger, and death, rather than their intellectual, political, or emotional entanglements.   The problem may not be the lack of options of the over-determined Ven diagram.  The problem may be in what we want out of a campus read in the first place. 

For me, the role of a good book is not to make the reader feel good.  It is to make the reader feel at all. And think.  And see the power, and even limitations, of language and story.

Time: 75 minutes (dammit), plus images, which I’ve decided never to count.

AND: Got a suggestion for a campus reads book? I’d love to hear it in Comments.

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21 thoughts on “Eye-Catching Image, Specific Subtitle: One Man, or A Woman, A Formula, and The Extraordinary Journey to Save the Campus Reads Book

  1. jkavadlo says:

    I just want to clarify that I did not make up any of the titles in that list. They are all real.

  2. jlze says:

    Jesse, love this post … I’ve long wondered what criteria determines these selections. Not as easy as I might have thought. And interesting that this group read concept is now being treated as a (bland) niche — geez, where’s Oprah when you need her?

    Wondering if the title needs to be a current one. If not, how about TC Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain? I read it a decade after he wrote it and thought it could have been written that yesterday.

    And if you get TC Boyle to speak at Maryville, I’m so there.

  3. jkavadlo says:

    Thanks so much for writing and commenting, jlze. I looked at your blog and saw your list of book club books over the years–a great range. A little generous with Tuesdays with Morrie and hard on The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down with two stars each , but Empire Falls and Interpreter of Maladies are great and not enough appreciated.

    You’re right about Oprah–academics who use “Oprah’s Book Club” as a put-down have not looked at what she actually chose: Walker, Morrison, Franzen (one and a half times), McCarthy–to say nothing of Faulkner.

    Thanks for the suggestion. Not sure what’s going to happen now and I don’t know that title by Boyle but I will look into it.

  4. Jaime B. says:

    I didn’t read Tuesdays with Morrie. I was kind of a slacker. Sorry.

  5. Emily Stockwood says:

    I know it’s a best seller and a hot read right now, but I think “The Help” might be a nice choice, at least in concept (maybe not so much now, since the movie has been released and people might skip out on actually reading the book). Its primary theme is race, and it also deals with literature and writing, society and class, the home, gender, human relationships, violence, education, justice and judgement, and history (Civil Rights Movement, Kennedy assassination, etc.). I don’t know, maybe it’s more of a book club kind of pick, but “The Help” was one of THE best books I’ve ever read in my life. Paper and ink has never made me feel the way this book did while reading it, and quite a while after I turned the last page. “The Help” is both loudly and subtly powerful.

    On a side note: Have you read “The Hunger Games”, Jesse?

    • jkavadlo says:

      Thanks for writing, Emily. Huh, The Help makes a lot of sense. I haven’t read it, and I wonder if “Book Club book” might be the right image–not a Campus Reads exactly but, like, a really big book club. Investigating.

      I’m waiting for my inter-library loan Hunger Games now. I haven’t read it but I’m hoping to before the movie comes out. Funny you should ask, because with HG I ordered what I thought of as the new trend in Young Adult–dystopias for teens. So I have Battle Royale, The Uglies, and The Knife of Something Something (I forgot) as well. I was even thinking about a future course on it. Dystopias are the new sparkly vampires.

      • Emily Stockwood says:

        Yeah, maybe a book club feel would give students more of n incentive to read the book comfortably… maybe it would feel like more of a leisurely read versus “I have to read this for school and I don’t want to because I have to read it for school”. Maybe people would want to discuss and meet more, then?

        Not to gush (but I guess I am), but I freaking LOVE The Hunger Games. I sailed through the first two books, and now I don’t know what to do because I can’t buy the third book until this weekend (I’m also going to the midnight premiere of the movie- fangeek). It is a super fast read, it was almost painful for me to put it down. The thing that appeals to me about HG, after thinking about it, is the overall contrast of the book itself. The language of the book is very simple (told through the main characters thoughts), but beautiful nonetheless. However, the underlying themes of the book are very involved, unsettling, and disturbing- dealing with free will/human rights, the value of human life, murder, entertainment/sport, justice, and humanity itself. I feel like this could break barriers for kid/teen books. HG is bloody (which even kids are all too used to today) but it speaks volumes.
        I would definitely take a dystopias course! Hunger Games for class? Sign me up.

  6. havepenwillscribble says:

    Professor,

    Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s essays “The Teaching Of Literature” and “Total Effect And The Eighth Grade,” from the collection Mystery And Manners?

    I can imagine what she might have written, or said, about The Campus Read.

    She would have concluded: Give ‘em dead!

    I skimmed your list of book titles and it occurs to me – and this is inspired by jtz’s comment about Oprah and your response – that if the Campus Read is about gathering the students into a conversation why not have Oprah come talk and hand books by dead authors out as party favors?

    I admire your engaging writing style.

    • jkavadlo says:

      Thanks for writing, havepen. I’m scared to admit to yet another book I didn’t read, but at least I read other essays by O’Connor. I think you’re right–most of the time, being alive is a valid job requirement, but not so here.

      I’ll call Oprah and make the arrangements.

      Thanks about writing style. You’re on to something here, possibly for a later blog entry: most of the reason I’m even writing the blog is so I can write _this way_, most of the other writing I have to do.

      Jesse

  7. havepenwillscribble says:

    I’ve got it, Professor! You call Oprah. I’ll call Flannery O’Connor. We’ll need News coverage for this Campus Read event!

    And Singers. And Dancers. And Acrobats.

    I like Acrobats, myself, though I never was very good at them, but if there is singing and dancing and reading, count me there, center front!

    Actually, Professor, I myself have only ever read a few books. Whenever I get the chance, I like to brag on ‘em.

    I look forward to reading more of your off the cuff essay’s on the subject of engaging young adult readers.

  8. jkavadlo says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful mini-essay on Hunger Games, Emily. Your reply alone suggests it’s gonna be good material for a class. I’m thinking spring ’13–“It’s the End of the World as We Know it: Dystopia in Young Adult Lit”–as fall ’12 is already planned (!).

    • Emily Stockwood says:

      I’ll keep my eye out for Spring ’13, then.
      Plus, I like the title (and the ironic timing) since we will be in the clear after December 31, 2012 😉

  9. Chris says:

    We were all assigned “The Limits to Growth”, by the Club of Rome at the University of Arizona in 1970.

  10. Laura C says:

    I haven’t read it, but Dan Allen’s “Dan’s War on Poverty: A Grassroots Crusade for Social Justice” got good reviews on Tulsa’s NPR station. Throwing it into the pool to see if it grows something. 🙂

    • Hourman says:

      Thanks, Laura. The book for 2012-13 ended up being _One Amazing Thing_ by Chtra Divakaruni, a novel. But based on this year I’m already keeping my eye on 2013-14.

  11. Self-referential pingback
    […] of a college-wide essay contest in conjunction with the shared campus read book. You may remember the difficulty I had in choosing it, indeed with the whole selection process and perhaps even the emerging genre of […]

  12. Jacklyn says:

    I’m expecting to see your visitor numbers go up because of this. If I’m wrong, then good luck anyway, it was nice while
    it lasted!

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