Biographies vs. Beach Books: Trends in All Campus Reads Selections


In the last decade, common reading programs have become a mainstay for library programming, literary organizations, and college campuses. The rise in First Year Experience, Freshman Reads, and All Campus Reads programs seems to correspond to the decline of core curricula in higher education — as colleges distance themselves from core curricula they find that students still need to have something in common academically.  Books in common type programs on campuses have been a convenient answer to that need.

Selecting a title that students from diverse backgrounds and varying interests can all relate to can be a big challenge.  Do you go with a book that has a political or ideological slant, but will ignite intellectual curiosity?  Or do you assign a book that the students will actually read and enjoy?  In a recent study by the National Association of Scholars, researchers examined books assigned by 245 colleges and universities for the academic year 2011-12.  They concluded that:

  • Recent books trump the classics. Almost 90 % of colleges chose books published since January 2000.
  • Most selections were found to be recent, personal, race-focused and unchallenging.
  • Of the 100 books selected with a racial theme, 60 chose books that focused on African Americans.
  • More colleges assigned books with a Native American theme, and fewer colleges assigned books about the Islamic World.

So how do organizers identify titles that combine both intellectual stimulation and the beach book factor?  Here are a few tips, and a list of books that have been successful around the country:

  • Tip #1: Seek a recently published book, and invite the author to speak on campus.  This alone is the best way to engage students. Recent books are more accessible to students, who tend to be more enthusiastic about contemporary themes.
  • Tip #2: One compromise between the biography and the novel is a memoir. With the proliferation of reality TV, memoirs are a genre familiar to students. Students are taught to base their interpretation of literature on their own personal experiences.  Thus the memoir is a nice segue to academic discourse.
  • Tip #3: Choose a theme for the year.  This can help organizers incorporate quality programming that can be both interesting and fun for students. It can also help various departments and classes create broad lessons and programs related to the theme.

Books in Common recommended All Campus Reads titles:

  1. Enrique’s Journey, by Pulitzer Prize Winner Sonia Nazario
  2. The Longest Way Home, by Andrew McCarthy
  3. One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Banjeree Divakaruni
  4. The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande
  5. Songs of Willow Frost, by Jamie Ford
  6. Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman
  7. Sarah Canary, by Karen Joy Fowler
  8. Scoreboard, Baby by Ken Armstrong
  9. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
  10. A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison
This entry was posted in All Campus Reads Programs, Andrew McCarthy, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Corban Addison, Enrique's Journey, Issue #3, Jamie Ford, Newsletters, Piper Kerman, Reyna Grande, Songs of Willow Frost, Sonia Nazario, The Distance Between Us, The Longest Way Home and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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