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Summer Reading for College Students: What Do You Think?

A recent article in The New York Times notes the recent upsurge in summer reading for incoming first-year college students. The practice itself is not new, to be sure. My undergraduate college had such a program and it was my great fortune that David Eppel, a wonderful actor and professor of theater convened the program that year, assigning Jean Genet’s The Maids to introduce a lecture he delivered when we got to campus on the radical political drag of South African performance artist Pieter-Dirk Uys.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into when that assigned reading came to me in the mail, but I loved it. Indeed, it was an unforgettable part of my education. The Maids asks us to imagine the way people are warped by living in a world of daily servitude, one in which murder seems not only just but necessary. Maybe the act of murder in this startling play is a logical extension of playing dress-up: assuming another’s identity, out of envy or even affection, means replacing them, by force if necessary.

From what the NYT tells us, many books chosen for summer programs are not so heady: “The range of books colleges use is enormous, covering fiction and nonfiction. Classics are largely absent, with most of the works chosen falling closer to Oprah than academic.” To be sure, such selections needn’t restrict themselves to one kind of writing or another. The Times mentions a few, including recent fiction favorites by Tim O’Brien and Mark Haddon. Interestingly,

“This year’s hands-down winner seems to be Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World,” an account of a single-minded doctor’s fight against multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in Haiti, Peru, Cuba and Russia. It is the pick this year at, among others, Gustavus Adolphus, Carleton College, the University of Florida, Illinois Wesleyan University, Skidmore College, Syracuse University, Baruch College, and Fort Lewis College.”

What books would be most interesting and useful for incoming students to read? You be the judge. Reply to this post (or email me) and name the book you’d have an incoming class first-year read and why. I’ll be sharpening my pencil and making up my own late summer reading list from the results. I’ll also be writing a letter to David Eppel to thank him.