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From Ancient Myths to Marketing Strategies: Books Assigned to Freshmen by Top Universities

teenagers reading booksEven before the academic year has started, students in the US colleges have work to do. Applicants have to read something, which usually varies from myths and legends to popular fantasy and overview of trends in the digital age. Most of the top colleges do this. They provide their future students with the must-read lists, items which are considered important by the institutions. What’s interesting, the titles are not usually program-related, but rather serve to help a student adjust to the new life in college.

Over the last few years, students across America have read a bunch of thought-provoking and sometimes controversial books. For example, The Iliad by Homer is a book to read when you’re about to start your studies at Columbia University. At the same time, those who were accepted at Stanford University were given three books that tackle contemporary issues. They are Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Lalita Tademy’s Cane River. Newcomers at Princeton got Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude Steele, a book about negative stereotypes and how they influence us when we are under stress. At Cornell University, students were obliged to read Vonnegut’s classics Slaughterhouse-Five, a book on the WWII and the absurdness of war in general. At the University of Texas in 2014, everyone received a list with options that included the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire series, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Sex and Desire by Jennifer Knust.

So why do colleges assign these particular books? Which benefits do students get from them? At Stanford University, all the books were united by a common theme — they were about people and their stories of how they overcome challenges. Those who read The Iliad indulged in the story of Achilles and his great failure when he was humiliated by his leader, so the very question of leadership is raised there. A very interesting find is a book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway assigned to freshmen at Smith College, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. It deals with the issue of climate change and how it caused the collapse of the Western world in 2093. Wild by Cheryl Strayed, with which students at New York University were acquainted was selected as a metaphor for freshmen who start their life away from home in a role that’s completely new to them.

While some students or applicants are quite enthusiastic about dealing with most of the reading challenge, others might protest against certain items from their lists. Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home caused protests from a group of Christian students at North Carolina’s Duke University. They claimed the book contained too much sexual content. Students discussed the assignment on their social profiles and complained that it was inconsistent with their morality. The book is about the girl who discovers herself as a lesbian and finds out that her father is a closeted gay. Vivid sexual imagery was the main thing that averted young people from reading it. At the same time, the administration of the college explained that they wanted to provoke students for a discussion, which is the main component of true liberal arts education. It is always possible to abstain from reading the assigned book, if it comes into a conflict with one’s morality, but that makes the discussion incomplete.

Every college has its own literature to demand from the students. Usually, books they assign are helpful in one or another way to a newcomer. Some prepare them to a new life as a grown-up, and some introduce them to important ideas or current trends. Some books help freshmen to overcome stress, while others challenge them for fierce discussions. There is always a reason why a particular university wants its newcomers read a certain book, and a refusal to do that can point at his or her weaknesses and unpreparedness for the real-life challenges.

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