A few months after I got into college, I received a package from the school with my copy of The Iliad and instructions to read it for my first day of classes. I’m not sure how many of us finished it for day one but I know that it gave us all at least one thing to talk about when we arrived on campus. Even as a painfully anxious 18-year old, I knew I could ask my new dorm-mates if they’d read it or what they thought about it. Hopefully, that’d be enough to get a conversation going. As Jessi Lewis pointed out last year, the freshman common reading is an exercise in idealism. It is the belief that a book can bring us together, forge community, and hopefully impart an important life lesson at a moment of major transition.
Common readings are also complicated and sometimes controversial programs. College and university administrators, usually with the help of a faculty committee, select a single book for anywhere from 150 to 10,000+ students to read. They need to pick books that have broad appeal, are challenging but readable by folks with various levels of language proficiency, speak to the school’s values, and encourage dialogue about big issues.
As you might expect, there is some resistance to asking students to read anything other than Great Literature (TM) in college. In their annual report on common reading programs, The National Association of Scholars complained that common reading programs focus on “recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging books.” I don’t generally worry about the death of literature and tend to think concerns like this border on “kids these days” griping. Reading a popular novel or memoir with a critical eye is a skill that students will find useful far beyond their college years. “Easy” (whatever that means) and popular doesn’t always mean “simple.”
I pulled together a list of fifty-five college and university common reading program selections for the class of 2020. This is by no means a formal study but I did my best to cover different kinds of schools in different regions. Below, you’ll find the common reading selections of large state schools, small liberal arts colleges, schools in the deep south and on the west coast, religious schools and secular institutions, community colleges, women’s colleges, and HBCUs. It may not include every college’s pick for this year, but it’s enough to see a few trends.
What makes me the happiest is the diversity of writers represented on this list. I expected a lot of dead white men but am pleased to find that the list more-or-less represents the plurality of voices we’ve got in the United States.
The other thing that stands out is the focus on identity, justice, and politics (broadly defined). Only a few of the books are explicitly about electoral politics but many of the selected books could be a case study in the ways that the “personal is political.” College students have grappled with these issues for ages but, given that it’s an especially tense election year, the intersection of identity and politics seems to have even more salience.
Finally, the clear “winner” for university common reading programs this year is Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Six of the schools on this list picked this book! Not only has Stevenson’s memoir won a ton of awards and appeared on many “best of” lists, it’s a coming of age story that directly speaks to selecting a career, finding purpose, seeking justice, and a demand for greater compassion for others. Plus, there’s a film adaptation planned (and it’s set to star none other than Michael B. Jordan). If there’s a runner up, it’s Wes Moore. He’s the only author to have two books on the list: The Other Wes Moore and The Work.
American College & University Common Reading Selections for the 2016-2017 School Year (alphabetical by school)
- Appalachian State University: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
- Auburn University – Montgomery: The Dinner by Herman Koch
- Bowling Green State University: A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger
- Brown University: My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
- Bucknell University: Loving Day by Mat Johnson
- Butler University: Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes by Kelsey Timmerman
- California State University, Northridge: Every Day by David Levithan
- Case Western Reserve University: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- Clemson University: One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni
- Columbia University: The Iliad by Homer
- Cuyahoga Community College: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
- Davidson College: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Duke University: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
- Elon University: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
- Fisk University: Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich by Mary Frances Berry
- Goucher College: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
- Grand Valley State University: The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas by Anand Giridharadas
- Hofstra University: Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins
- Kansas State University: Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream by Joshua Davis
- Lansing Community College: Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook
- Miami University of Ohio: Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream by Joshua Davis
- Mills College: Immigrant Voices edited by Achy Obejas and Megan Bayles
- Montana State University: The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters by Wes Moore
- Mount Holyoke: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- North Carolina State University: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
- Pacific Lutheran University: We Need New Names: A Novel by NoViolet Bulawayo
- Princeton University: Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen
- Queensborough Community College: Handbook for an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (with Great Hair) by Rosie Perez
- Reed College: The Iliad by Homer
- Rhode Island College: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
- Rutgers University: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
- Saint Cloud State University: The Good Food Revolution by Will Allen
- Smith College: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- Southern Methodist University: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
- Stony Brook University: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
- Texas Christian University: How to Win an Election by Quintus Tullius Cicero
- Texas State University: What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
- Tufts University: Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America by Roberto G. Gonzales
- Tuskegee University: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
- University of Arizona – Honors College: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
- UC Berkeley doesn’t have a single required book but did create a list of suggested readings themed around “firsts.”
- University of Florida: A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General by General Ann Dunwoody
- University of Kentucky: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
- UMass Amherst: Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet
- University of Mississippi: Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie
- University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
- University of Oregon: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- University of Pennsylvania: instead of a book, students will watch Citizen Kane to kick off the university’s “Year of Media.”
- University of South Carolina: The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours by Marian Wright Edelman
- University of South Florida: The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
- University of Wisconsin – Madison: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
- University of Texas also doesn’t have a single required book. Instead, the university lets students select one of many to read and discuss. Options range from Girls Like Us, about human trafficking, to The Hobbit.
- Vanderbilt University: Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss
- Virginia Commonwealth University: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
- Washington State University: I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
This is, of course, just a selection of US college and university reading. Let us know in the comments what your alma mater is asking the class of 2020 to read before arriving on campus.