I have written about the Stanford Freshman Reading list before. In my latest alumni magazine I discovered that not much has changed at Stanford (as far as book choices). They now have a Three Books Program, where they mail each incoming frosh three books to read over the summer. Then they have a lecture or two about it when the kids arrive at The Farm. Pretty cool riff on the summer reading idea. But look at the three books they chose for the Class of 2007 (quoting from a 5/31/07 Stanford News Service story).
The Way to Rainy Mountain, a short book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday, is told in three voices, comparing historical commentary, Kiowa oral tradition and personal reminiscence.
Wallace Stegner, founder of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program, wrote: “I know nothing quite like this book, and nothing of the Indian that is at once so authentic and so moving.” The New York Times commented: “Written with great dignity, the book has something about it of the timeless, of that long view down which the Kiowa look to their myth-shrouded beginnings.”
Momaday received his PhD in English from Stanford in 1963…
Okay, this could be good. Stegner is a heavyweight. But if we’re going to have Stanford frosh read three books, shouldn’t they be GREAT books? They could be the same three books every year. (The program is for the frosh, not the people organizing the program.) And how about, for instance, one biography, one science book, and one sociology book? Shouldn’t we be trying to expand some minds here?
Jealous-Hearted Me, by Nancy Huddleston Packer, is a collection of hilarious and heart-breaking stories about greed, midlife restlessness, sibling rivalry, aging and misplaced pride in an Alabama family. The stories stand alone yet together read like a novel.
Hilarious and heart-breaking, huh? I’m skeptical. Mainly because Packer wrote the textbook for frosh English and that textbook is a big reason I couldn’t stomach the thought of being an English major. Four years of literary criticism sounded like intellectual hell.
Finally, Lucille Clifton’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Good Woman describes a world of “dissolving tradition,” Fields said. The book, a volume of poetry concluding with short sketches of family members, is infused with the family’s memory of Clifton’s great-great grandmother Caroline, a woman who was “born free in Africa” in 1822 and “died free in America” in 1910, and who urged her family, “Get what you want, you from Dahomey women.” Clifton is this year’s recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. She received a National Book Award in 1999.
Poetry. I would advise against it. These three books seem designed to create English majors or die trying. Again, let’s broaden some horizons. Let’s challenge these incoming frosh. Are these the best Three Books Stanford’s faculty can come up with? Pretty sad. To be fair, some past Three Books have been more impressive, like Kite Runner and Tracy Kidder’s Mountain Beyond Mountains. I would just hate to be a frosh in one of the crappy years. Wouldn’t it be kind of cool if you had the same three books over four-year stretches, so all four classes could talk about them with each other? Especially if the three books were really intellectually demanding.
I imagine it’s hard to pick books. For instance, you wouldn’t want to pick any of the standard classics that kids have probably already read in high school. But there are enough great books out there that you can find some uncommon, mind-bending options.