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:
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.