Thursday, September 23, 2010

UW Common Book: Poetry?

The University of Washington, like many universities across the country, has a "Common Book" program that chooses one book a year for all incoming freshman to receive upon arrival and, hopefully, read. This year, for the first time, UW has chosen a book of poetry. Well, "chosen" isn't really the right word. What they've done is develop and publish their own anthology of poems designed to "grab an 18-year-old."

I'm all for encouraging young people to read poetry, but why not an actual, single-author poetry book as they exist in the wild? The article linked above states, "The committee first considered a book by a single poet, but quickly rejected that idea," but does not explain why the idea was quickly rejected. Perhaps the committee could not agree upon a book that, in its entirety, would hold the attention of or feel relatable to a UW freshman. Which begs the question: Does such a book exist? The answer to which, I'm sure the committee believes, is "One does now, and it's called You Are Never Where You Are. And we made it special just for the occasion."

For context, past selections for the UW Common Book include:

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder (2006)

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert (2007)

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea (2008)

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (2009)

It is intriguing that all are nonfiction books. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Or maybe one surefire way of relating to 18-year-olds is through stories that actually happened. God forbid anyone should have to suspend disbelief in the quest to enjoy reading.

In any case, I'm not sure I agree with the cherry-picking of poems, or books, to appease a particular audience's perceived preferences. Isn't exposure to unfamiliar and worldview-challenging media one of the great experiences of college life? Do we no longer expect our students to accept and meet the challenge of understanding what is initially foreign as part of that experience? Wouldn't it be great if we could give these students the benefit of the doubt and let them tackle a book of poetry without spoonfeeding it to them?

I recognize the tension between reality (not everyone likes to read; almost no one likes to read poetry) and the ideal (give them a chance to approach a book on its own terms and deal with their reading demons). University administrators want students to read. They also recognize the correlation between enjoyment and continued reading practice. Intellectual rigor falls through the cracks in favor of being encouraging. It's the same old story: dealing with the students you have vs. dealing with the students you want.

But does it work? Do any of these Common Books serve as gateways to a lifelong love of reading? Will the contrived collection of You Are Never Where You Are unlock the world of poetry for anyone? Will it do a better job than, say, Ariel or Lunch Poems? I'll have a better idea when I find out what poems were selected for the collection, I guess.

As a postscript, I wonder how much prevailing poetry reading habits played into the committee's decision to develop its own collection, i.e., the preference for reading and engaging individual poems on their own rather than reading them in the context of an entire single-author collection. This is not a fully formed thought. Just something that occurred to me in time for me to leave off this post and go pick my dad up at the airport.

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