Beyond Beach Books

Peter Wood

I’m gratified by the public response to our list of books recommended for college “common reading” programs.  (Welcome, Huffington Post readers!)  For one thing, it speaks to a pretty vibrant public concern over the quality of books that people should read in college—and in other stages of life. In light of the considerable interest, we have added a permanent link from our homepage.

It was clear several months ago that we touched something important when we criticized colleges for choosing lightweight contemporary books as (in many cases) the sole reading shared by all the students in the freshman class.  And our list of 37 books we argue would be better choices has confirmed this. Literate Americans still care about books, even if the percent of Americans who regularly read books isn’t what it once was. 

One of the most welcome responses came by way of a phone call from Brian McCarthy, one of the Associate Publishers of The Library of America, who brought to my attention a new LOA paperback volume of Lincoln’s writings that better fits our reading list than the LOA hardback we cited (we made the change). Mr. McCarthy also noticed that a good many of our books can be found in other LOA volumes (e.g. Agee’s A Death in the Family; Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop; Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans; Franklin’s Autobiography;  Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance; Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; Lewis’s Babbitt; Twain’s Life on the Mississippi; and Melville’s The Confidence-Man.)  Mr. McCarthy also brought to our attention LOA’s series, “Paperback Classics,” which provides handsome and inexpensive editions of writers in addition to Lincoln:  selected writings of Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Stowe, Du Bois, Twain, London, Melville, Crane, Wharton, Jefferson, Whitman, William James, and Henry Adams, so far.  Hats off to the Library of America for keeping Americans equipped with essential books.

What’s next for our examination of common readings?  We have been getting a lot of good suggestions.  Some have asked how colleges know whether students actually read their beach books.  How effective are these programs?  One reader, a “director of academic first-year experiences,” suggested that we look at how the responsibility for picking books is assigned within colleges.  Some include students on their book-selecting committee; some choose by administrative fiat; some have a mix of faculty members and staff.  (Our informal impression is that a lot of the committees include a librarian and an English professor.)  Yet another suggestion was that we engage in some historical research and find out whether colleges did anything like beach book programs in the 1940s and 1950s.  And one reader wondered whether we could see any overall difference in readings assignments between selective and non-selective colleges. 

Some readers encouraged us to set the bar even higher than we did.  A good many of the Huffington Post readers who commented thought, as C. Rutledge Wilson put it, “These really are books that should be read in high school.”  And many of the posters—precocious readers!—said they had done just that. 

Well, hats off to them too.  I didn’t find my way to Life on the Mississippi until my thirties.  Our task, however, was to find books that most college-bound students today probably haven’t read; that are actually within their reach in terms of length as well as difficulty; and that nonetheless have important literary and thematic value.  To that end, we pared back a much longer list of titles (almost 200) to the 43 (the 37 plus six “more ambitious” titles) we actually posted.   The titles we set aside include works such as Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America; Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, and Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station.  Actually, quite a few of the titles our readers have suggested are already on our “set aside” list. 

Which raises the question:  what should we do with that list?  Given the interest in our compilation so far, we are weighing the idea of something like a National Association of Scholars’ Recommended Readings for Life

Not all comments have been helpful, except in the sense of adding some mordant amusement to the enterprise.  We learned that numerous Huffington Post readers really dislike The Last of the Mohicans.  I suspect that Mark Twain’s hilarious send-up of Cooper’s Indians has done its damage.  Some readers just can’t get past the image of the ambushing Indians dropping one by one into the water as they miscalculate their descent from a sapling to a settler’s boat of dimensions that would have humbled James Cameron’s version of the Titanic.  But for all that, The Last of the Mohicans is a still a great book and if we have lost our capacity to read it with pleasure we have lost something important.

For readers who claim that our list of books is too easy, I’d advise they take a look at the list of books we are proposing to replace.

Sometimes the comments offer evidence that a college education really can produce a kind of neurological impairment.  Stephen99, for example, writes of two books on our list that, “Pilgrim's Progress and Death Comes for The Archbishop are popular pieces of Anglo colonialist/expansionist garbage.”  Well, John Bunyan was indeed English.  What his allegory of Christian salvation has to do with colonialism or Western expansion is a bit mysterious.  Willa Cather’s novel is set in the colonial Southwest, but seeing in it what Stephen99 sees clearly takes the trained insight of a mind sophisticated in the ways of post-colonial theory. 

Back to the question of whether students actually read and benefit from the assigned books.  We would like more evidence, but pending that, I can offer my own experience.  As provost of The King’s College a few years ago, I began a program of college-wide required reading.  One year the assigned book was Melville’s The Confidence-Man (currently one of the entries on our “more ambitious” list.)  It proved an uphill battle to get students to read a moderately difficult book on which they knew they would not be graded.  We staged public readings, held discussions, and tried numerous ways to cajole students into reading a book that is actually a pleasure to read.  Nothing really worked.  The final verdict in my eyes was a spring student art show in which one student submitted a paperback copy of The Confidence-Man with a dagger embedded in it. 

So the next year, I tried something else.  I assigned The Pilgrim’s Progress over the summer along with an announcement that students would be tested, and those who failed the test would be required to memorize a passage, recite it to a committee, and answer questions about it.  The turn-around was amazing.  The students took the reading to heart, studied madly for the test, and only a bare handful failed it.  Among those who failed were some for whom the book sprang to life when they actually sat down to memorize an assigned passage. Moreover, the book became what I had hoped The Confidence-Man would become:  the touchstone for broader discussions and a common currency of ideas and images.  The Confidence-Man was supposed to open a discussion about the role of trust in a democratic society. The Pilgrim’s Progress was supposed to open a discussion about the importance of embracing difficulty. 

One for two was not bad.  And I too learned something about difficulty:  if you want students to read a book in common—to actually read it—choose a challenging book and make the follow-up difficult too.  Not impossible.  Just difficult.  

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