Inside Higher Ed has an article about summer "common reading" for new college students, a subject in which NAS has expertise and the nation's most comprehensive data (see our annual Beach Books reports). Jacqueline Thomsen, author of the article, writes that IHE has undertaken its own survey of these assignments. IHE's analysis echoes a number of NAS's findings. As I have said before, common reading programs are a good opportunity but there's much room for improvement in the book selections and, more generally, in the ways colleges treat the discipline of reading.
Several of the readers commenting on the article seem to agree. Here's the comment I posted at Inside Higher Ed responding to the author and some readers' remarks:
As Ms. Thomsen stated, my organization, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), has weighed in on common reading programs. I am co-author of our annual study of these programs, which now includes about 340 colleges and universities and offers the most comprehensive data on the books assigned.
Our main critique of the assignments is that there is very little diversity among them. As Ms. Thomsen pointed out, and Professor Pury laments here in the comments, fiction is a minority in freshman reading. Classics are extremely rare. The most recent data we have show that 95% of the books assigned are younger than the students themselves. That’s generally because colleges want to have the author come to speak on campus (and Shakespeare, Swift, and Salinger are now unavailable).
I welcome Professor Lobell’s call for more recommendations, and the books he mentions sound good (as are the ones EpicurusTevye suggests). NAS also has some recommendations along with reasons why each one would be a good choice for freshman common reading.
But better books aren’t the only thing we need. Colleges face deeper problems, such as that many new students are book virgins – they come to college without having ever read a whole book before. Common reading programs are a good way to encourage a culture of reading, and colleges can strengthen these programs by fostering a spirit of intellectual curiosity, love of a challenge, and openness to trying books outside the current mainstream trends.