While incoming first-year college students enjoy the summer break, many will also be cracking open books that their institutions have asked them to read before classes start. The summer reading assignments, known as common books, differ at each institution but are all meant to stimulate discussion about current events when students arrive on campus.
This year, as in the past few years, many institutions are choosing books that touch on issues of social justice—particularly racial inequities. At Siena College in New York, first-year students are required to read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, a novel based on the true story of abuse at the Dozier School for Boys in Jim Crow–era Florida.
Michelle Liptak, a first-year-seminar professor at Siena, said the faculty committee chose the book back in 2020 for the 2021–22 and 2022–23 academic years.
“We’re very committed to picking a text that deals with current issues,” Liptak said. “And so given what was going on, especially in regard to the Black Lives Matter movement, we wanted to pick a book that dealt with injustice and race. We narrowed it down to five titles, and The Nickel Boys was one of them.”
The 925 members of the incoming freshman class will discuss the book in their first-year seminars and—depending on the professor—either write an essay or take a quiz on the text.
The college also plans to bring in Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida, to discuss her work examining the unidentified bodies of the boys who attended the Dozier School and went missing, said Britt Haas, another professor who leads a first-year seminar. Faculty members who teach the book all try to make it relevant to the world today, she said, though they approach it in different ways.
“The common thing is that it’s the basis for discussion,” Haas said. “It varies very widely, not only the assignment, but even the conversations that we’re having in class. They are all certainly about racial justice issues—how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in terms of striking the balance of racial justice. But all the professors do different things with the book.”
At Goucher College in Maryland, students are required to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Lacks was an African American woman whose cancer cells became, without her knowledge or permission, the source of the first human cell line to be reproduced indefinitely for use in medical research.
Isabel Moreno-López, associate provost for undergraduate studies, said the summer read is the first component of each student’s four-year exploration of Race, Power and Perspective, a key element of Goucher’s core curriculum. Though the college typically chooses a book related to social justice for its 300 first-year students to read, this year’s selection is unusual in that is crosses many disciplines, she said.
“Usually books that deal with social justice, race and power fall into the humanities,” Moreno-López said. “But this is a book that can be studied in the natural sciences, because it talks about medicine. At Goucher, we support this reading requirement across divisions, and this book is ideal for that.”
Moreno-López said the book should trigger conversations about ethics in medicine, since Lacks’s cells were used for cancer research without her consent, as well as racism in medicine and medical research. The fact that Skloot is white could also lead to a discussion about the imbalance between the numbers of white and Black authors represented in the publishing industry, Moreno-López said.
All first-year students will attend a group discussion about the book at the start of the fall semester, which is intended to kick off conversations about the book throughout the term. If students don’t attend the group discussion, Moreno-López said, she will seek them out for a one-on-one chat about the text. Students are also required to write an essay and upload it online for their first-year seminars.
At Seton Hall University in New Jersey, first-year students will be required to read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. The book recounts the founding of Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law office in Montgomery, Ala., and the case of one of his first clients: Walter McMillian, a young Black man who was wrongly sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman he did not kill.
“Just Mercy is a wonderful and timely choice—fitting in with our mission and DEI goals and inspiring for young adults setting out on their career paths,” said Nancy Enright, director of the university core curriculum. “The themes of justice, mercy, overcoming racial bias, community and faith in connection with social justice link closely with those similar themes integral to the core. Seton Hall University’s core curriculum is an approach to general education that encourages students to become thinking, caring, communicative and ethically responsible leaders with a commitment to service.”
Kelly Shea, associate professor of English and director of the writing center at Seton Hall, said Just Mercy was the clear summer reading choice for the second year in a row. The book makes it easy for faculty to lead group conversations, she said, and classes can also compare and contrast the book and the movie, which was released in 2019.
Approximately 1,500 first-year students will read the book for Seton Hall’s University Life course, a one-credit seminar designed to help them acclimate to college life and build connections to peers and faculty members. Additionally, the Reverend Forrest Pritchett, senior adviser to the provost on diversity, equity and inclusion, is organizing a trip for faculty, students, staff and alumni to visit Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative headquarters in Montgomery.
Smith College in Massachusetts is requiring first-year students to read an offering by one of the college’s own: The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, an alumna and professor of English language and literature. The novel is a coming-of-age story that focuses on grief and other topics, allowing faculty to lead discussions on consumerism, mental health, family dynamics, workplace stress, chosen family and more.
Jane Stangl, dean of the first-year class, said Smith chose the book because it resonated with the objectives of the first-year experience.
While Smith doesn’t require students to read the summer book, it strongly encourages them to. The college’s first-year students number about 650, and Stangl estimates that roughly two-thirds of them will read Ozeki’s book. One obstacle could be the book’s length; at more than 550 pages, it’s considerably longer than previous year’s texts and could challenge students, Stangl noted.
“The book is a powerhouse of quality writing,” Stangl said. “Yet we also want our students to read the book. In previous years we have tended to shy away from what might feel daunting, but the quality and intimacy of the writing is so digestible that we felt it worth the effort.”
Other institutions, including the University of California, Berkeley; Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania; Spelman College in Georgia; and Binghamton University in New York, don’t require students to read a book over the summer, but they recommend a book or a selection of books for incoming students.
Binghamton, part of the State University of New York system, suggests that first-year students read Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil. Kelli Smith, assistant vice president for student success, who oversees the university’s Common Read Experience, said this year’s book was selected for its focus on issues of race and inequality.
“The [book selection] committee also felt the book had the advantage of touching on issues of inequality more extensively than some of the other books considered this year,” Smith said.
Smith said Binghamton professors will coordinate discussions among first-year students—who number over 3,000—during the first week of classes. The university is also encouraging all faculty to incorporate the book into classroom discussions, she said.
Other summer book selections this year include:
- The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde, assigned at Moravian University
- This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman, assigned at the University of Louisiana at Monroe
- Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, assigned at New York University
- Junaluska: Oral Histories of a Black Appalachian Community, edited by Susan E. Keefe, assigned at Appalachian State University
- They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, assigned at Bucknell University
- The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans, assigned at Saint Michael’s College
- Dig by A. S. King, assigned at SUNY Oswego