Increasingly, colleges are giving their newest students an assignment before they even get to campus — required summer reading.
Various schools across the country are now sending home a common book for incoming freshmen to read before they officially start their studies. Colleges say that having everyone read a book together gives new students a shared experience and oftentimes opens them up to a world distinct from their own.
However, these book choices are not without dissenters. A recent column from the president of the National Association of Scholars argued against the practice, saying that colleges were too often picking books without lasting value, rather than established classics. He writes,
The patterns are not subtle or elusive. Contemporary writing is king: 97 per cent of the colleges assigned books published in or after 1990. Cinema is regent: At least 66 of the 190 books have film versions. Translation is unwelcome: Only six were first written in a language other than English. Me is first: Memoir was by far the most popular genre, accounting for 92 titles. Nonfiction rules: 71 of the colleges assigned fiction, while 242 assigned nonfiction.
We compiled a list of the books that the top colleges in America are assigning their students for summer reading, ranging from newly released novels to high profile memoirs to in-depth studies.
Whether you’re trying to make your way to one of these schools or just looking for a good book to read, these are the 19 books currently being consumed by some of the top incoming students in the country.
'My favourite books are ones that provoke me both to question my own assumptions about the world and to disagree from time to time with the author. I like books that make bold arguments and ignite conversations! The Honour Code is no exception. Professor Appiah writes with the grace of a novelist and the erudition of a philosopher (he is both). He describes how older conceptions of honorable behaviour -- like the idea that people should fight duels to avenge insults -- suddenly died out, and he raises important questions about the meaning of honour in our own time. I hope that you'll find his book as engaging as I did -- and that you will both learn from and argue with the views that Professor Appiah presents.'
'For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. Soon the family's world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus.
Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labour, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood -- the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. In the Shadow of the Banyan is testament to the transcendent power of narrative and a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.'
'In his book College, What It Was, Is, and Should Be, author Andrew Delbanco describes the benefits of a core liberal arts curriculum that is required of all students in an institution: '…not least among its benefits, it links all students in the college to one another through a body of common knowledge: once they have gone through the Core, no student is a complete stranger to any other.' ... (College)delves into the history of higher education in the United States, illuminates its many greater purposes, and offers thoughts on how it could be better utilized in the modern world.'
'Although I've never met David James Duncan (I hope to visit him in Montana this summer), I've long admired his writing. The Brothers K is a masterpiece, in my judgment, and the The River Why picks up on many of the same themes. I find the writing itself fluid and irreverent, with a touch -- well, more than a touch -- of humour. The River Why belongs in the same genre as other great novels of the American West, including A. B. Guthrie's The Big Sky, the works of Rick Bass and Annie Proulx, and A River Runs Through It, by Dartmouth's own Norman Maclean.
Duncan is not afraid to raise the big questions, to push readers a bit.'
Stanford University 'The Art of Fielding: A Novel' by Chad Harbach, 'First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers' by Loung Ung, 'The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us' by Arlie Russell Hochschild
'You will be leaving your home for a sustained period -- and for many of you, though not all, it will be for the first time. That transition is never a simple one and this is the main reason why I, as this year's moderator of the Three Books program during New Student Orientation week, have chosen to group the selection of texts I am asking you to read this summer under the general theme of 'Home.'
You are leaving home but of course home is not vanishing. Think of all the ways that the concept resonates through contemporary discourse: the homeless, homepage, home team, Homeland. We hear, read or think about the realities these terms signify just about every day. We 'need' the home concept, it seems. But in our contemporary world home is changing its meaning for many people. Is it a place? A structure? A neighbourhood (or an escape from a neighbourhood)? An object? An ideology? A set of ideas? Is it people? Mulling these questions does not just involve recognising your changed relationship to your own home. Being at a university means meeting individuals from a vast array of different backgrounds with many unique stories to tell, including stories about their homes. You will see that for you and your classmates home is never any one thing. You will probably also recognise that the nature of home is changing for all of us in the contemporary world. The way that people defined their homes and invested meaning in them a generation ago was very different to the way that people do the same things today. Not only are all homes different -- and equally memorable -- but what home meant for your parents' generation is probably very different from what home means for your generation. And from what it will mean for the generation(s) after yours. As you read the books, please bear these questions in mind. Reading is not only a means of acquiring knowledge about the world 'out there'. It is also the means of coming to understand your own thoughts and intuitions 'in there.' A book is a window onto the world. And it is a mirror: if we stare hard enough it lets us see who we are... and who we are not.
'Here is the story of a precarious childhood, with an alcoholic father (who would die when she was nine) and a devoted but overburdened mother, and of the refuge a little girl took from the turmoil at home with her passionately spirited paternal grandmother. But it was when she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes that the precocious Sonia recognised she must ultimately depend on herself. She would learn to give herself the insulin shots she needed to survive and soon imagined a path to a different life. With only television characters for her professional role models, and little understanding of what was involved, she determined to become a lawyer, a dream that would sustain her on an unlikely course, from valedictorian of her high school class to the highest honours at Princeton, Yale Law School, the New York County District Attorney's office, private practice, and appointment to the Federal District Court before the age of 40. Along the way we see how she was shaped by her invaluable mentors, a failed marriage, and the modern version of extended family she has created from cherished friends and their children. Through her still-astonished eyes, America's infinite possibilities are envisioned anew in this warm and honest book, destined to become a classic of self-invention and self-discovery.'
Brown University: 'Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times' by Eyal Press
From Brown's First Readings:
'History has produced many specimens of the banality of evil, but what about its flip side, what impels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention? Through these dramatic stories of unlikely resisters, Eyal Press' Beautiful Souls shows that the boldest acts of dissent are often carried out not only by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but also by true believers who cling with unusual fierceness to their convictions. Drawing on groundbreaking research by moral psychologists and neuroscientists, this deeply reported work of narrative journalism examines the choices and dilemmas we all face when our principles collide with our duties and loyalties. The book focuses on four different individuals and what led them to make the decisions they made.'
'In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. She charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century and explores how deeply it has come to permeate our culture. She also introduces us to successful introverts―from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Passionately argued, superbly researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how they see themselves.'
'Bradley's book is a systematic analysis of hip hop understood through the lens of history and contemporary poetry. The book's chapters are close examinations of hip hop's Rhythm, Rhyme, Wordplay, Style, Storytelling and Signifying. In recommending Book of Rhymes for PRP, the Year of Sound steering committee noted the aptness of hip hop as an area of exploration because it encompasses sound both in music and in poetry, and is an example of how sound plays a vital cultural, social and political role. Many students will be familiar with hip hop, but probably will not have explored it in an intellectual context. With this in mind, Book of Rhymes was particularly admired because it is an academic work, and at the same time is understandable to non-specialists.'
University of California, Los Angeles: 'Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned' by Judd Winick
'Pedro Zamora changed lives. When the HIV-positive AIDS educator appeared on MTV's The Real World: San Francisco, he taught millions of viewers about being gay and living with AIDS ... Pedro's roommate on the show was Judd Winick, who created Pedro and Me to honour Pedro Zamora, his friend and teacher and an unforgettable human being.
Not too long after the show had been airing, Judd's roommate and good friend, Pedro, took ill from AIDS complications. Pedro was to begin a lecture tour in September. Judd agreed to step in and speak on his behalf until he was well enough to do so again. In August of 1994, Pedro checked into a hospital and never recovered.
Pedro passed away on November 11, 1994. He was 22.
... Pedro and Me was chosen as UCLA's 2013-2014 Common Book because it provides a platform to discuss relationships, sexual orientation, health education, loss and love, and other topics relevant to the experience of first year students.'
'The summer reading book should be relatable to the Duke experience, and I think 'Let the Great World Spin' is the perfect choice with this consideration in mind. The book stitches together the experiences of a diverse group of people living in New York by depicting a single event they all witnessed or interacted with.
At Duke, you will meet many people that are different from yourself in every sense. In my opinion, the beauty of the Duke experience is coming to appreciate these differences while recognising the events and moments that stitch everyone's Duke experience together.'
'Some of the smallest elements will be bringing big ideas to Davidson this coming school year. Cells are the focus of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Davidson 2013 Common Reading book, which all incoming Davidson students will read over the summer and discuss during orientation. Author Rebecca Skloot traverses the disciplines of science, history, and sociology in her quest to understand the full story of immortal cells -- and the woman they came from.
As African-Americans living in Virginia in the 1950s, the family of Henrietta Lacks was never told that cancer cells had been removed from her body, or about their subsequent multiplication into a multi-billion dollar medical industry. The book explores cell research, informed consent, and racial prejudice in their historical roles, and examines how they continue to intersect in current medical research. Skloot contrasts the medical benefits available to patients on the receiving end of cell research with the ethical violations experienced by the Lacks family, and she raises tough questions about patient rights and the value of medical experimentation.'
'Julie Otsuka's quietly disturbing novel opens with a woman reading a sign in a post office window. It is Berkeley, California, the spring of 1942. Pearl Harbor has been attacked, the war is on, and though the precise message on the sign is not revealed, its impact on the woman who reads it is immediate and profound. It is, in many ways she cannot yet foresee, a sign of things to come. She readies herself and her two young children for a journey that will take them to the high desert plains of Utah and into a world that will shatter their illusions forever. They travel by train and gradually the reader discovers that all on board are Japanese American, that the shades must be pulled down at night so as not to invite rock-throwing, and that their destination is an internment camp where they will be imprisoned 'for their own safety' until the war is over. With stark clarity and an unflinching gaze, Otsuka explores the inner lives of her main characters -- the mother, daughter, and son -- as they struggle to understand their fate and long for the father whom they have not seen since he was whisked away, in slippers and handcuffs, on the evening of Pearl Harbor. Moving between dreams, memories, and sharply emblematic moments, When the Emperor Was Divine reveals the dark underside of a period in American history that, until now, has been left largely unexplored in American fiction.'
'Mr. Moore tells the story of two children with the same name who grew up in Baltimore. One grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated combat veteran, White House fellow, and business leader. The other is currently serving a life sentence in prison for felony murder. Due to the subject matter, this book contains some graphic descriptions and strong language that may be considered offensive. It is the belief of the committee, however, that the book contains an overall positive message outstripping the story's more negative qualities.'
Northwestern University: 'The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change' by Roger Thurow
'The book chronicles a year in the life of four small-scale farmers in Western Kenya who, with help from a social enterprise organisation founded by a Northwestern graduate, begin to transcend cyclical poverty and hunger.'
'Tackling hunger requires the truly interdisciplinary approach that Northwestern is known for ... By showing how individuals can make a difference in confronting seemingly insurmountable problems, The Last Hunger Season serves as a clarion call for our students to go out and engage with the world.'
In this series of forthright essays, Biss sets out to examine issues of race and identity in America through the lens of history and of family. She makes links between lynching and the spread of the telephone, both of which required tall straight poles in public places. She considers the legacy of Reconstruction in public school systems, particularly the New York City classrooms where she teaches, and questions the instruction to make her students 'better people.' She remembers the white and black dolls she shared with her sister in light of the famous Doll Studies of Mamie and Kenneth Clark, and she rereads Laura Ingalls Wilder as she settles into the Rogers Park neighbourhood of Chicago.
Throughout, Biss acknowledges her own assumptions and privileges. Never hesitating to ask difficult questions and face the sometimes-embarrassing answers, she still remains hopeful about the possibilities of diversity.'
'Humans are needy. We need things: objects, keepsakes, items, stuff, tokens, knickknacks, bit and pieces, junk and treasures. We carry special objects in our pockets and purses, place them on shelves in our homes and offices, and from time to time bring them out and look at them, touch them, listen to them, smell them. Our objects mark special times and places. They serve as mementos from the past, goals for the future, and points of connection to others: friends, heroes, lovers, and ancestors.
... The theme of the 2012 Common Reading Experience centres around the objects that make us who we are, on the objects we have come to love. From teddy bears to technology, blankets to basketballs, clothes to cameras, we identify ourselves in and through the objects we own and engage. Through a common reading, supplemented by lectures, exhibitions, gatherings, and imbedded into courses, we will embark on an investigation of the 'stuff' of our lives.'
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