Duke University's incoming freshmen are speaking out against their award-winning summer reading selection

Duke University, like many institutions of higher learning, has a summer reading program. Dubbed The Duke Common Experience Summer Reading Program, it’s designed to give incoming freshmen from all over the world a shared text to discuss as they begin their studies.

This year, the text is Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir “Fun Home,”  an award-winning autobiographical work about Bechdel’s relationship with her late father, who died not long after Bechdel came out as gay — and discovered he was, too. Although “Fun Home” was first published in 2006, the book is enjoying a fresh wave of publicity thanks to its Tony Award-winning Broadway musical adaptation.

However, some students are objecting to the selection, choosing to skip reading it “because its sexual images and themes conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs,” reports the Duke Chronicle.

Reading the summer reading selection is not a requirement to attend Duke (nor is it at most universities with similar programs), but several students have reportedly posted their reasons for objecting on the Duke University Class of 2019’s private Facebook group, according to the Chronicle. 

As a work of graphic nonfiction — a true story in comic book form, if you will — “Fun Home” seems to be singled out not just because of its subject matter (which includes frank explorations of sexuality) but precisely because of its medium.

“The nature of ‘Fun Home’ means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature,” one student told the Chronicle. 

This complaint — that a work with controversial subject matter is less objectionable in prose but degrees more offensive in comic book form — is actually an old and recurring one. Most recently, similar objections were raised by a student of Crafton Hills College as recently as June 2015. 

Comics and graphic novels come under such frequent scrutiny that a non-profit organisation known as the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund was formed to preserve the First Amendment Rights of the comic book medium.

Some students at Duke University have raised counter-arguments to those who would object to reading “Fun Home,” arguing for its literary merit since it details a lived experience very different from the one many of those students may have faced. 

But since there is no requirement to read “Fun Home,” there can never be a real resolution to this debate. At the very least, incoming Duke students are all engaged in a conversation about the same thing — which was the point all along. 

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