Many colleges and universities assign a book, either to their incoming freshmen or to the student body at large, as “common reading.” These assignments are usually not for credit and are intended to provide the campus community with a common intellectual experience outside the formal curriculum. The National Association of Scholars publishes Beach Books, an annual report on these assignments. Beach Books was created to explore what books colleges and universities assign as common reading; what themes the books contain; whether they are old books or recent ones; the kinds of colleges and universities that have common reading programs; and what all this tells us about the state of American higher education today.
Our 2012-2013 edition of Beach Books, covering 309 colleges and universities, will be published next month. In each edition of this report, we offer recommendations to institutions for ways to make the most of the opportunity and choose better books. In 2010 we came up with a list of 43 of our own suggested books for college common reading programs. Of these, we identified 37 that are appropriate for any college common reading program, as well as 6 more ambitious choices.
We are always looking to improve this list, and this year we decided to add seven books to round it out to an even 50. We now recommend 40 books appropriate for any level and 10 more ambitious choices. The full list may be found on our website under Resources on the Recommended Books page. This page also includes our criteria for these recommendations.
Here are the seven new books with our explanations of why we chose them:
List A: Appropriate for Any College Common Reading Program
JOHN CHADWICK – THE DECIPHERMENT OF LINEAR B (1958)
This is the story of how Michael Ventris solved a 50-year mystery by deciphering the language of an ancient Cretan script known as Linear B. Chadwick was Ventris’s friend and close collaborator and wrote that “even when [Ventris’s] success was assured, when others heaped lavish praise on him, he remained simple and unassuming, always ready to listen, to help and to understand.” We picked this book because (a) it is a true story of the heroism of scholarship: tenacious curiosity and earnest study bring order out of confusion; (b) it provides students with an example of a moment when the facts proved academic consensus wrong; and (c) it unlocks a door to the Hellenic world at the time of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
JOSEPH CONRAD – UNDER WESTERN EYES (1911)
This novel, set in St. Petersburg and Geneva, is Conrad’s answer to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. We chose it because (a) the narrator observes a non-Western mindset through “Western eyes”—a skill Western students should learn; (b) it depicts both the allure and the repugnance of terrorism (to which Conrad in his introduction to the book referred as “senseless desperation provoked by senseless tyranny”); and (c) it shows the truth as being worth defending despite the cost.
FRANCIS PARKMAN – THE OREGON TRAIL (1847)
A classic of frontier literature, The Oregon Trail is American historian Francis Parkman’s detailed and sometimes graphic account of life in the pre-Civil War West. He writes of buffalo hunting on the prairie, the hardships faced by westward-bound travelers, and the day-to-day lives of American Indians. Though Parkman’s personal narrative is colored by the prejudices of his time, his book remains a fascinating window into an era of American history whose influence continues to this day. We picked it because (a) it exemplifies history written on a grand scale, an attempt to encompass a large topic and a large idea; and (b) Parkman conveys an unapologetic sense of the energy, courage, and sheer enterprise of America’s western pioneers.
List B: More Ambitious Choices
MIGUEL DE CERVANTES – DON QUIXOTE (1605)
Is Don Quixote a hero, a fool, a madman—or all three? Don Quixote is a rich, gargantuan saga of the adventures of the iconic windmill-tilting knight-errant Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza. The book has been called the “first modern novel,” and Harold Bloom writes that the tale of Don Quixote’s impossible quest “contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake.” The book might be the longest work a college student will ever read, but it will also be the most memorable.
WHITTAKER CHAMBERS – WITNESS (1952)
A former Communist and Soviet spy, Chambers repented and exposed former State Department official Alger Hiss as a fellow Communist and spy. Hiss denied the allegation but evidence emerged that Chambers was right. Though the statute of limitations on espionage had run out, Hiss went to prison on a perjury conviction. In Witness Chambers goes beyond the details of this case to offer a broad reflection on the course of twentieth century history and the fate of Western civilization as it faced the challenge of totalitarian Communism.
BARBARA TUCHMAN – THE GUNS OF AUGUST (1962)
Winston Churchill called the first month of World War I a “drama never surpassed.” Renowned historian Barbara Tuchman’s classic chronicle of the first month of World War I and the events leading up to it is “more dramatic than fiction.” We chose this book because of its stellar writing, sweeping historical insight, and the story’s intimate bearing on the rest of the twentieth century: for, in many ways, the beginning of World War I was the beginning of the modern world.
EDMUND WILSON – TO THE FINLAND STATION (1940)
In To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson traces historical, political, and ideological threads from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The title refers to the St. Petersburg train from which Lenin emerged to take charge of the burgeoning Bolshevik revolt. Wilson’s narrative is an intellectual and cultural history that reveals the connections between the revolutionary era and the rise of socialism.