It would be silly to pretend that a book, by virtue of being contemporary, is necessarily less nuanced, deep, or wonderful than a book that is old. That assumption hinders Ashley Thorne's otherwise fascinating research into what books American colleges are assigning students as part of "summer reading" programs that are meant to ignite campus-wide conversation and connections. She writes about the striking patterns she discovered in The Guardian over three years, drawing from her organization's report: Beach Books: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?
Last year, 309 American colleges had a summer reading program, some assigning multiple books. Only eight colleges assigned a book that was published before 1990. Thorne writes:
For American college students, 1990 appears to be a historical cliff beyond which it is rumored some books were once written, though no one is quite sure what. Why have US colleges decided that the best way to introduce their students to higher learning is through comic books, lite lit, and memoirs?
Yes, that huge generalization grates -- the condescension toward comics and memoirs, which certainly can be silly "lite lit," but also can be extraordinary, and, of course, published before 1990 -- these aren't exactly "new" forms. I'd vouch for, say, Maus or Fun Home or Night as terrific prospects for a summer reading program anyday. And anyway, if you dig into the full report, only six "comic books" -- all nonfiction, including The Complete Persepolis and The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone On the Media -- were among the summer reading picks, so Thorne is rather dishonestly inflating the story here. She also sets up strawmen defenders of the post-1990 reading list who champion the "accessibility" and "relevance" of modern texts over older classics; she doesn't actually quote or even name a single one of them in the Guardian piece before burying them with a sniff about the dumbing down of American education. (To be fair, the full report includes quotes of defenders, though it's fair to assume that most Guardian readers won't dig so deep to find them.)
But beneath the overly-broad brush, Thorne's numbers are nonetheless interesting. I was surprised that science is the most popular subject for summer books, assigned on 39 campuses. It's followed by multiculturalism/racism, poverty, and "coming of age" books. Sixty-six assigned books have or will soon have a film adaptation. Only six were originally published in a language other than English. Books focusing on environmentalism were down this year compared to the previous year. Amazingly, and, in my book, distressingly, 242 books were nonfiction; only 71 were fiction.
It is not surprising that racism is one of the most common subjects tackled in summer reading books. Thorne's conflicted observation about this -- "there are great works of literature such as Othello that might serve to introduce students to that, but the emphasis in the common readings is on indicting contemporary society, not on discerning an age-old affliction" -- is well met.
Thorne does note in her Guardian piece that there's good reason to tilt toward contemporary authors over older ones: colleges want to bring the author to campus. Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is a particular favorite -- the report names it as the most popular common reading assignment by far, and Skloot visited nine colleges last year as part of campus programming. Thorne weirdly suggests that a "subtle kind of advocacy for Obamacare may be behind the popularity" of Skloot's book, while giving zero evidence about why this may be true beyond a vague gesture toward the book's attention to Lacks' uninsured and struggling descendants. More likely: Skloot's book is an excellent story with far-reaching provocations about health, justice, and self-determination.
Meanwhile, "California State University, Channel Islands budgeted $14,000 for its speaker fee to Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," Thorne tells us. And, well, good for Diaz. And Skloot. The writing life is patchy and difficult to sustain. Both of these authors are talented, and if campus visits make it more sustainable for them to do their art -- while exciting thousands of readers to engage with their work -- then we have hardly found ourselves with a problem on our hands, have we?
The choice of a recent book that is often the only book students will have in common with one another points to the death of a shared literary culture. To the extent that colleges want to approach that culture, they display willful selfishness in confining their sights to the present. Contemporary books are worth reading, but their richness is many times increased by the knowledge of what came before. That knowledge is evanescent.
"Willful selfishness" seems like completely the wrong way to orient this, but I appreciate her deeper point about how literary culture is long, and that what come later builds richly on what came before. And it's actually not that likely that most students will read all that much of, say, Tolstoy or Balzac or Shakespeare, or Basho in their general literature classes -- these folks tend to be parceled out into high-numbered electives. It might be interesting to do a summer reading program that pairs an older classic with a newer one for a multiple-book assignment that leads to interesting programming when students return in the fall -- say, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and/or Frankenstein paired with Henrietta Lacks. What conversations we could have, then, about the power and possibility of science, medicine, and the making of people!
In short, there is a real lost opportunity in the summer reading programs -- I get that. But we needn't get all sniffy and dismissive about what is being to see it.