Reading a book is like going to a dinner party. You agree not just to spend time with your host, the author, but with all the other invited guests—your fellow readers. If the party goes well, you meet people you like, and you definitely have something to talk about.
Colleges and universities have caught onto this idea. From Princeton University to tiny Hesston College in Kansas (“Start here, go everywhere”), some 350 institutions of higher learning this year assigned a single book that all the freshmen were asked to read. As the colleges see it, these common reading programs “build community.” Between the hors d’oeuvres and the demitasse, the students will discover their mutual admiration of…Homer, Proust, Hemingway? No, not quite.
The host books of these community-building parties definitely aren’t classics. The seven most assigned books this year are:
The Other Wes Moore
16 colleges, including Kansas State University, assigned this 2011 memoir by Rhodes Scholar Wes Moore in which he contrasts his fortunate life with a namesake crack dealer in prison for murder.
14 colleges, including the University of Wisconsin, Madison, assigned this 2014 account of author Bryan Stevenson’s successful efforts to spring a black man in Alabama wrongfully convicted of murder.
6 colleges, including the University of Tennessee, assigned this 2014 novel by Dave Eggers depicting a Google-like corporation’s attempt to take over the world.
March: Book One
6 colleges, including one of the SUNY campuses, assigned this 2013 comic book memoir of the life of Civil Rights protester John Lewis.
5 colleges, including Williams College, assigned this 2006 reconstruction by journalist Sonia Nazario of an unaccompanied Honduran child’s illegal entry into the United States.
Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash
5 colleges, including Penn State, assigned journalist Edward Humes’ 2012 polemic against American landfills.
5 colleges, including Indiana University, assigned journalist Warren St. John’s 2006 account of a soccer team made up of children from various Third World countries.
Each book is, in effect, its own dinner party, but it’s funny how all seven parties seem so similar. All the books are recent, so much so that the publisher labels the 2006 Enrique’s Journey “a classic.” All but Garbology are written to the level of junior high students or below. (March is written to the level of fourth graders, according to the independent Lexile ratings.) And all of them urgently promote the agenda of the campus left. The Other Wes Moore is about systemic racial injustice. Just Mercy is about racial injustice and the systemic unfairness of American law. The Circle is about the dangerous powers of big business and threats to privacy. March is about the struggle to overcome racial injustice. Enrique’s Journey is about injustice to immigrants—and racial injustice. Garbology is about America’s heedless consumerism and destruction of the environment. Outcasts United is about social activism as a way to advance multicultural understanding, help immigrants, and overcome racial injustice.
Hey, I have no problem with students in college learning about crack dealers in Baltimore; poor guys railroaded to death row in Alabama; big-bad corporations snooping into our personal lives, and so on. People who want to read these books should go right ahead. I’ve read them and survived to tell.
But if you consider the special status a book gains when it is picked as the only common reading a college class will ever have, these books—childishly simplistic in theme, substance, and style—are a sorry lot. It’s as though every party you’ve been invited to offers a menu that serves only Happy Meals.
My colleagues and I at the National Association of Scholars have been reporting on the common reading picks for the last six years in an annual study we call Beach Books. We’ve seen the choices go from bad to worse, year by year. It is not that every college freshman is ready to plunge into The Republic or Middlemarch. But we could do a lot better than we currently do. We offer a long list of “better books for the beach,” which ranges from Albert Camus to Zora Neale Hurston. There is a world of wonderful books awaiting the college freshman once he gets the idea that there are things written before he was born that are—astonishingly—still worth reading. The message from our colleges these days, however, is the exact opposite. Well over 90 percent of the assigned books are younger than our college freshmen.