The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, like many other colleges, sponsors a "Summer Reading Program" for incoming students. Participating students all read the same book and, in the days before classes begin, meet with faculty members to discuss it in small seminars. Each year the university asks for recommendations, and each year I’ve suggested a book. Actually, I’ve suggested the same book every year: Tolstoy’s late novella, Hadji Murat. Four years on, the choice looks ludicrous, but the first year I suggested it some combination of arrogance and naïveté convinced me it would be picked. The book was supposed to be "intellectually stimulating," "enjoyable," capable of provoking "interesting discussion," and "appropriate for the level of incoming students," and to "address a theme applicable to the students themselves." In my submission proposal, I don't think I even made a case for the first four. Intellectually stimulating? It's by Tolstoy. Enjoyable? Capable of provoking interesting discussion? No problems there. Appropriate to the level of incoming students? I took this as code for "not too long," and, in my experience, Hadji Murat is about the briskest hundred-or-so pages I've ever read.
But what about the last criterion – "a theme applicable to the students themselves"? That, too, was easily met. Hadji Murat is, after all, about a morally-suspect empire’s attempt to suppress a guerrilla campaign waged by besieged Muslim Chechens. This alignment of forces was eerily contemporary. It was especially so in 2007-8, a year the fathers and mothers of some students might have spent waging a counterinsurgency campaign against a Muslim enemy in a land not so distant from the Caucuses – Iraq. And if not their parents then perhaps their high-school peers, particularly in a state with a rich military tradition like North Carolina. Hadji Murat is about dying for and against empire. That seemed "applicable" to the students themselves, who could participate in a summer-year reading program because someone else was waging a counterinsurgency campaign on their behalf.
But I still had an ace in the hole. I had heard enough complaining from colleagues about how poorly students fared with fiction, and I had witnessed quite a lot of it myself. I figured that the selection committee must have experienced much the same, and would fall over itself to find a novel that fit the bill. Here was a chance to teach fresh, unformed minds about fiction’s difficult riches. I honestly thought the book was a lock.
It wasn’t picked. The winner that year was Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, by Kenji Yoshino. I was disappointed – not because my selection lost (I’m not that competitive), but because this just didn’t seem like a very good choice. The selection committee wrote that "Kenji Yoshino’s book forces readers to confront important issues relating to what we mean by equality and social justice, important themes indeed during a time when many mistakenly believe we live in the 'post-civil rights era.' It is both rigorously put and beautifully rendered. This book offers an excellent introduction to what rigorous critical inquiry is like at the university level. And the central topics treated – identity and self-expression – are central to most 18- and 19-year-olds."
I am sure that this is all true, but I couldn’t help feeling that the students had been done a disservice by asking them to read a work of nonfiction. Nonfiction was what they would be reading for the next four years and, though the students needed to learn about "rigorous critical inquiry" at the university level, all indications were that they needed far more to learn about the rigorous critical inquiry of fiction. Yoshino’s argument, I have no doubt, was subtle. But protecting civil rights is not an argument many students would find either surprising or objectionable. So for all the rhetoric about "confronting important issues," I wonder if a book like this doesn’t confront them in too cozy a manner. I cannot say for sure. But should it really be the first book an undergraduate meets? Just look at the description above, which notes that its central topics are "identity" and "self-expression." The selection committee was right – those are central to most 18-year-olds. So why give them exactly what they already know, in exactly the nonfictional form with which they are most familiar?
That question has nothing to do with Yoshino’s politics, about which I know nothing for certain, though I suspect they’re vaguely liberal. And this is where last year’s report from the National Association of Scholars, which also took issue with summer-reading programs, misses the mark. The report concluded, disapprovingly, that the "preponderance of reading assignments promotes liberal social causes and liberal sensibilities." Only 3 books of the 180 surveyed promoted a "conservative sensibility" and none promoted "conservative political causes." There is something methodologically dodgy about this sort of accounting, and I actually suspect the balance is much more equitable than this lets on. But it only occludes a more serious issue. The NAS’s challenge could be met, I take it, by substituting a conservative defense of civil rights (or limited government or what have you). But why would this be any better, since students would still be denied the intellectual and affective exercise that comes with clambering around the rock terrain of dense, difficult, and distant fiction? The NAS has no interest, so far as I can tell, in fiction as such. (Or just not a very good eye for fiction – it described The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a "not very challenging text," which makes me wish that the NAS reread Huck Finn next summer.)
Enough colleges and universities now run a first-year reading program that Princeton University Press has a section of its catalog specifically dedicated to books that fit the bill. I probably should have looked at it before suggesting Hadji Murat. Had I done so, I would have known it never stood a chance.
Here are four representative selections:
Diane Coyle’s The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters; George Akerlof and Robert Schiller’s Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why it Matters for Global Capitalism; Peter Leeson’s The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates; Joel Waldfogel’s Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents; Lawrence Weinstein and John Adam’s Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin..
Also included are books on the Tea Party, UFOs, and an edited volume of Lincoln’s writings on race and slavery. There is not a single novel. One novelist, Amos Oz, is represented, but instead of a novel, the catalog suggests his essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, How to Cure a Fanatic.
The books form a distinct but difficult to define family. Begin with the titles. Many of them have that format that publishers are keen on nowadays – a made-up word (Scroogenomics Superfreakonomics, Guesstimation) or a pun (Souled Out, Cop in the Hood), followed by a colon and, depending on the title, something appropriately sober or comically gee-whiz. More importantly, they are almost all nonfiction, are mostly concerned with contemporary American political and economic life, and, suitably compressed, would not be out of place on the opinion pages of the Sunday New York Times. Most earned warm reviews, and their authors are responsible for some wonderful writing (and some Nobel Prizes). But there remains something distastefully topical about them all: the Tea Party, piracy, the religious right, how soulful economists really are. (For all the NAS’s griping about the absence of "conservative" titles, it might take some comfort in the fact that the "market" is warmly represented). And, again, not a single work of fiction on the list. Princeton is not primarily a publisher of fictional titles, but, in its extensive back catalog, could it not find one bit of fiction worth suggesting?
I do not know how many universities have turned to this list to stock their first-year reading programs. But a quick search shows what universities have turned to this past year: Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change; William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope; Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man; Steven Levitt and Stephen Deubner’s Superfreakonomics; Reichen Lemkuhl’s, Here’s What We’ll Say: Growing Up, Coming Out, and the U.S. Air Force; and Moustafa Bayoumi’s How Does It Feel To Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America. This reads like a somewhat-less distinguished version of the Princeton list. Again, topicality is the order of the day – climate change, alternative energy, economics-as-the-solution-to-everything. Close behind are stories of identity and self-expression, topics so dear to 18-year-olds.
All of which is difficult to say without seeming to cast aspersions on the quality of these books. That could not be further from my mind. I haven’t read most of them (though my own garden-variety left-wing blog reading makes me think I’ve got the gist of just about every one). I’m sure some are excellent.
But do incoming students really need to be told that the world is facing a climatic Armageddon? Probably not. Do they need to be told that economics is the master discipline, ready to solve the world’s problems? Probably not. Do they need to be told that it is difficult to be gay and that gay rights should be protected? Again, probably not. Of course some students need to hear all of this – the last especially – and I hope that they leave college less bigoted and more humane than they arrived.
But I hope more ardently that they don’t leave thinking that these topics are at the center of a collegiate education. A collegiate education can, of course, be taken-up with thoughts of the timely – climate-change, the Tea Party, financial markets, and piracy. But there would be something defective about that, precisely because it ignores the way an education must be about the disinterested pursuit of the permanently untimely. And that is what these books, and these first-year reading programs, miss so egregiously. College becomes a kind of intensified continuation of blog- or opinion-page reading. Worse, it becomes training for a life in thrall to the market. (A point forcefully made by Martha Nussbaum’s Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. It is a cruel irony that her book is also included in Princeton’s first-year catalog.) How else to understand the preponderance of glowing titles about economics? The idea that something utterly, irremediably foreign ought to confront the students seems nowhere in sight. That is part of the reason why I suggested Hadji Murat, and part of the reason, I think, that students have such a difficulty with imaginative literature. They simply do not confront much that they have not already encountered.
I didn’t sign up to lead a seminar on Yoshino’s book. My participation in the university’s first-year reading program was limited to my hopeless suggestion of Hadji Murat, my version of a write-in vote for Nader. And I had informally vowed not to participate until the committee selected a novel. I had given up on Hadji Murat. (Maybe it will be selected to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Sunni Awakening). But then, this year, the committee selected Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. It, like Yoshino’s book, violates the strictures that had kept me from participating: nonfiction, topical, and, suitably compressed, something that wouldn’t be out of place in the Atlantic. But I happened to be college friends with Safran Foer, and the bonds of friendship were sufficiently strong that I got my copy of the book, and signed up to lead a seminar.
In the course of reading Eating Animals I reflected upon my earlier reluctance to participate in the program. And I began to doubt that it was as well-grounded as I thought. I am a vegetarian, and I find Safran Foer’s book – despite his disavowals – a resoundingly clear case against eating meat. And I was secretly quite thrilled that a few thousand students had been invited by the university to read this book – secretly thrilled, that is, that few thousand students would be confronted with a powerful case for stopping the slaughter of billions of animals. “Would it have been better if they were reading Hadji Murat?,” I asked myself. I wasn’t so sure. And, during the positively gut-wrenching pages of Safran Foer’s book, pages filled with unspeakable acts of cruelty, I was absolutely certain that I couldn’t care less if no one ever read Hadji Murat again. Twenty vegetarians – or, really, five – were better than two converts to Tolstoy. If I wanted to stop the slaughter of animals for food – a slaughter that Safran Foer shows is more gruesome than I ever imagined – what could be better?
And I thought differently about all those other books I castigated for their overly parochial concerns – with climate change, the Tea Party, civil rights, or gay identity. As strongly as I felt about the slaughter of animals, weren’t these books nominated, and selected, because their supporters believed just as fervently in their causes? I’m certain they were. I was able to see, in a way I had not before, that these books were selected because someone thought the threats to our civil rights, to the environment, or from Tea Party were as urgent as I found the threat to animal life. My own parochialism had been shown up, and suitably shamed. I was sorry for my arrogance and ignorance.
As it happens, Eating Animals seems not to have made much of an impact on the students. None of the 20 who came to the seminar became a vegetarian. The best I got were vague professions about more ethical eating. "I’ll only eat free-range," said one student. "I’m only eating chicken from now on," said another. These sound like good outcomes, consistent with the aims of a program designed to get students to "think more deeply" about the topic at hand. But they are incoherent things to say after reading Safran Foer’s book, which memorably demolishes the meaningless moniker "free range." And if there were one animal you would not want to eat after reading the book, it is the chicken. That chicken’s miserably short life was spent in a warehouse with thousands of equally miserable, equally doomed birds. It moved only a few feet in the entirety of its unnatural life, and then only to escape the aggression of its crazed neighbors. Its last moments were spent in a slaughterhouse, caked in defecation and dirt, where its neck was severed by a machine of truly medieval cruelty. How had they missed those pages?
I've spent the last few weeks trying to understand why so many students got the book so wrong. There were all sorts of good reasons. Maybe they read it in the beginning of the summer and had forgotten the details. Or maybe they just didn’t read it. Either of which would have been understandable and, for first-year students who spent the summer on the beach, forgivable. But with one or two exceptions, all professed to have read the book. They just had no idea what Safran Foer had written.
And so the more I thought about the conversation the more difficult it became to resist the conclusion that students simply aren’t very good readers. This is not news. Becoming a good reader, after all, is one of the things that happens in college, not before it. But until this seminar, I had assumed that their difficulties were limited to fiction. I assumed that they all knew how to follow the argument of a piece of nonfiction, especially one as linear as Safran Foer’s. There are some subtle arguments in the book, but the overriding claim simply cannot be missed. And miss it is just what these students had done.
I was disappointed that no one had become a vegetarian – just as, I suppose, the recommenders of Yoshiro’s book would have been disappointed had someone left the discussion convinced that our civil rights were safe. But I was more disappointed for the students, that they were so inexperienced in the ways of reading that they were lost even in a book like this. I tried to see their inexperience as a reason for excitement. Just think, I tried to tell myself, how much room they have to grow as reader. But I didn’t really believe this. Sure, they would become marginally better readers. But the kind of reader I wanted them to become – the kind of reader I myself want to be – is the kind of reader one becomes only after years of reading fiction.
Others have made the case for fiction more persuasively than I ever could. And if these first-year reading programs contained a smattering of fiction and nonfiction, there wouldn’t be much reason to gripe. Fiction some years, nonfiction others is a good enough outcome. But the paucity of fiction in these programs is stunning. My university has chosen fiction once (Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake) in 12 years, a ratio that seems fairly typical of colleges nationwide. (It also bravely selected Approaching the Quran in 2003. Though obviously not a work of fiction in the sense I have in mind, it poses interpretive challenges not unlike the best imaginative literature). I was heartened to see Knopf issue its own catalog of first-year titles. Although it mostly resembles Princeton’s in its emphasis on economics and gee-whiz science, it includes nearly 20 novels, some of them, like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, supremely beautiful and difficult. Sadly, I couldn’t find a college that chose it.
Tolstoy makes a brief appearance in Safran Foer’s book, which has a laugh at the Russian’s fatuous suggestion that the end of slaughterhouses would mean the end of war. This just goes to show that reading fiction doesn’t inoculate you against bad ideas. It doesn’t make you a more moral person either, many "save-the-humanities" cases notwithstanding. But reading fiction makes you a better reader. Somehow, administrators of these programs seem to have lost sight of that. And so the next time some college thinks about selecting Safran Foer, I’d ask them to think about the famous Russian vegetarian instead. I’ll be sorry to take away the sales from my friend, and sorry that his book won’t be read. But I’m sorrier to see his book read poorly, and, as the author of some wonderfully imaginative fiction himself, perhaps he won’t mind losing to Tolstoy.
Brendan Boyle teaches in the classics department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.