Reimagining College Summer Reading

Programs for incoming freshmen can't satisfy everyone -- or can they? The philosophy underpinning Linda Hall's suggested approach: you read yours, and I'll read mine.

August 19, 2015

When I heard that Skidmore College, where I teach, had assigned Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams to its incoming first-year students, I couldn’t help marveling at our originality. Summer reading programs tend to choose the same old books, or rather the same nearly new ones. The Other Wes Moore, for instance, has been assigned by dozens of schools over the past few years, including ours. (Of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks I won’t speak except to say that we didn’t select it, though it was a finalist.)

But hardly any colleges have lately gone with Einstein’s Dreams. And in addition to being not especially trendy, Lightman’s book is a philosophical novel about a scientist, so I assumed that quite a few departments would be reasonably pleased.

Now the faculty responses to Einstein’s Dreams are available on our first-year-experience website, and they provide proof, if any is needed, that satisfying every member of a department is a trickier matter. “The worlds that Lightman envisions are striking in their lack of racial, economic and sexual diversity, and we might say that they’re disappointing in their treatment of gender as well,” writes a colleague in the English department.

A government professor, though admiring of the novel, warns students that much of their college work “will certainly be more ‘challenging’ than reading Einstein’s Dreams.” Most underwhelmed is a biologist: “Einstein’s Dreams was clever and amusing, but didn’t include any insights into either science or human nature.”

I won’t feel sorry for Alan Lightman, who surely prefers readers to nonreaders, nor will I pity the colleagues who chose his book, a strong-minded foursome. But I am reminded of why, last winter, I volunteered for, was appointed to and declined to join their committee. I had hoped to push for something worthy of the students and a little unexpected, only to realize that I was not up to the work.

It wasn’t that I dreaded faculty or freshman flak; I simply couldn’t come up with a book that would meet the summer reading criteria and my own standards. Even if there were no committee -- if the choice were entirely up to me -- I knew I’d be stumped.

Left to my own devices, would I do away with summer reading? No, I’d try a variation on it. Instead of assigning one book that is expected to do several things (inspire engagement, spark debate, build community), I would present the students with several books -- a menu of options -- in hopes of promoting reading. Wellesley tried something like this last year, but it did so to usher in an orientation theme (“Free to Explore”), and first years were offered only four possibilities. Einstein’s Dreams (1992) was one. The others were Predictably Irrational (2008), The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009) and The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (2011).

My experiment would offer no fewer than a dozen titles, would not neglect old books and would be named after a New York Times article that appeared more than a decade ago, when common-reading programs were just catching on: “You Read Your Book and I’ll Read Mine.”

Two kinds of students may benefit from this approach: those who aren’t already major readers and those who are. One-book programs seldom cater to the latter, and sometimes outrageously offend them. The first time I ever heard of common reading was when my hometown -- go-getting, contentious, proud of its public library and public schools -- assigned itself kiddie lit (not my assessment: the book was a Newbery Award winner). It never occurred to me that a college would do anything like that, but in 2008-9, Williams asked faculty, staff and students to read a novel that had won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. “Apparently Williams thinks I’m 12,” a student wrote in the school newspaper.

Freed of the need to please everyone, I could offer books that, in the short run, please very few. Swann’s Way, anyone? For students who gamely try but are defeated by Proust, I’d offer a couple more rarely taught novels by great novelists, a collection of short stories and a celebrated volume of letters (perhaps a poet’s). Literary readers love letters, but how many of us were introduced to them in school?

Some of the brightest, most avid students are not literary at all. They may in fact regard literature as “some kind of personal insult,” as does a science-minded boy in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women (a terrific summer reading book, by the way, and one that would allow us to give the equally good This Boy’s Life a well-deserved vacation).

Not long ago a retired engineering professor, a deeply intellectual and exacting man, confided to me that murder mysteries are the only fiction he can tolerate. With his sensibility in mind, I would include on my menu no genre fiction, which students probably already know about, but a number of biographies, autobiographies and distinguished works of nonfiction that they probably don’t. If they want to try the literature on the list, no one’s stopping them.

As for nonreaders, they turn up even at good colleges, and they are easily underestimated. Teachers often use topical controversies to try to engage them, big or little issues on which everyone has an opinion if not expertise. But the real enthusiasms of students -- the things that make them interesting and different from one another -- are in many cases not that far removed from adults’ (though possibly quite unlike those of their own parents).

Excellent books exist on any subject you can name. I have had good luck in the past matching students with authors who care as much about their interests as they do, but undergrads are certainly capable, given a list of books, of doing this work themselves. Hook them with subject matter; hold them with writing.

Last year on a train I picked up an abandoned Wall Street Journal and read a favorable review of the Library of America’s Football: Great Writing on the National Sport. Football -- scarcely an esoteric interest, and some freshmen probably need more of it as much as they need another concussion. But I would put the anthology on my menu. Students who are knowledgeable about the sport are in a position to be productively critical of what they read, and if they finish even four of the 44 essays, their aesthetic sense will be heightened as they inevitably compare and contrast. If the students finish only one essay but like it deeply, it’s not impossible that they will seek out more work by the author, or perk up if they encounter the name again.

If they read none (yes, it’s true: some students don’t crack their summer reading) but go online for a “study guide,” they will not find one. The book is not on many syllabi. They will find reviews, which tend to be better written than cheat sheets and may entice students to give the book a try. If they visit the anthology’s Amazon page, they will learn that customers who viewed Football also viewed Mark Edmundson’s Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game. Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. See, freshers? We’re not necessarily nothing like you.

In the fall, on campus, students would have the opportunity to meet others who chose their book. The result might be a number of small, true communities. Picture a conversation taking place in 30 years: “How did you two meet?” “We were the only two freshmen who finished the first volume of In Search of Lost Time.” (In my experience, one-book programs also build community, but the result is not always pretty. I once watched an auditorium of first years cheer when a summer reading author, on campus for an interview, said, “I’m so sorry you had to read my novel,” and last year a student advised me that he and his friends had come together over their beach book and burned it.)

Faculty, too, would choose what to read; they would not have to grin and bear books they disesteem. We -- all of us -- might stun one another, as well as ourselves, with our selections. I know that I would greatly enjoy being wrong in my predictions of who would choose what. First, though, we -- all of us -- write, and not mainly to prove we read.

Possible prompts: What would you say about this book to someone who hasn’t read it? To someone who has? What most surprised you about it? What, if you were the editor, would you change?

“You Read Your Book and I’ll Read Mine” would cost less than common-reading programs, because the college would provide only titles and online samples. Students would obtain their own books, just as they do for classes. Secondhand copies of the two I’ve named are available quite inexpensively, though the school should emphasize the advantages of visiting the library before or in lieu of buying or illegally downloading. (I say this even though I recognize that public libraries are not created equal. My own, serving an upstate New York town of 27,000, has better hours than Detroit’s.) The school should also emphasize both the program’s seriousness and its rationale, encouraging first years to see self-determined reading as a habit of the educated person.

If all of this seems ludicrously utopian -- “You expect students to select, obtain and read a book on their own, in summer?” -- then maybe freshman orientation ought to include some role-playing exercises in autonomy. If, however, my experiment seems pitched too low for today’s students, I will disagree. One reads a lot in the conservative press about “book virgins,” students who have never read anything all the way through for pleasure.

But I hear about such students all the time from teachers who are not conservatives. “How any liberal arts college might combat the sudden, and very shocking, decline in student literacy that is widespread in our culture, is a pressing question,” a no-nonsense professor of my acquaintance commented in an email discussion last year.

I see things as she does, but you don’t need to have perceived any kind of decline to nod along at what she said next: “What we all suspect is needed … is to ‘get students to read more books’ -- which is both ludicrously simple to articulate and appallingly complex to imagine making happen.” I’ve just imagined it. A young professor I met last year has another proposal: teach students to train as readers as if they were athletes. Professionalizing their reading, he calls this.

The approach mystifies me. Even if it didn’t, though, it seems to overlook something that no self-respecting jock ever would: to turn pro, you must first be a serious amateur.


Linda Hall is an associate professor of English at Skidmore College.


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