March 31, 2004

Incoming Freshmen to Be Put on Trial

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“Kafkaesque,” a lexicon meaning “to be marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger,” is found and used in 110 languages.

The term, which is mainly derived from Franz Kafka’s, The Trial, might be the buzzword around North Campus this fall since this early 20th century novel will become required reading for over 3,000 incoming freshmen and transfer students as part of the University’s New Student Reading Project.

The Trial is about a banker who has to defend himself against unclear charges while also facing a complex, non-rational legal system. The book was chosen after the consideration of a variety of literary works.

Designed over three years ago by Provost Biddy Martin, the project hopes to promote intellectual discussion among new students and members of the University and local communities. Freshmen will receive free special-edition copies of the novel before they arrive on campus.

Although written 90 years ago, the book “reads as if it were written today,” according to Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education. Kramnick said that the novel’s theme relates to current events including the Patriot Act.

However, even with the presidential elections dominating the domestic scene this fall, Martin said that the novel’s selection committee did not keep the November event in mind when choosing the book. Rather, she said the book was chosen for the quality of its writing and the broader issues which could be discussed.

“It has aspects of surrealism and magical realism and it allows the reader to speculate on a wide range of possible reactions and interpretations,” Kramnick said. “It really speaks more to larger questions about the individual confrontation with large and unfeeling institutions whose procedures and rituals are often incompatible to the solitary individual.”

Although the initiative is relatively young, the project has grown rapidly throughout its history through a community-wide discussion of the novels chosen each year. Kramnick said that once, a small alumni group discussion even took place at a reunion in Boston before a Harvard-Cornell football game.

In reaction to the growing popularity of the project, the University will donate over 1,000 copies of a special edition book to the Tompkins County Public Library and high schools around the area and 23 alumni classes have ordered books for over 20,000 alums this fall — a record number of former student participants.

According to Kramnick, this growing interest among former students has been a main surprise for the University as in the first year of the project, when freshmen were required to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, there was not much alumni response.

“It means the alumni are eager to partake in the intellectual life on campus,” Kramnick said.

In expanding the project, Kramnick said the University will have an essay contest for high school students concerning The Trial. In addition, prior to the start of their freshman writing seminars, new students will also be required to compose a non-graded response about the novel to gauge students’ writing abilities.

The new features of the project will go along with smaller discussion groups and a large school-wide discussion, headed by a panel which includes Prof. Cindy Hazan, human development and Prof. Faust Rossi ’60, law.

“I think it’s an excellent book for the students to read and I look forward to talk about it,” Rossi said. Two years ago, freshmen read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein while last year, new students discussed Sophocles’ Antigone. Although The Trial is 248 pages longer than the 64-page Greek book, some students including Vic Gupta ’06 said that as long as the novel is open to interpretation and diverse ideas, the project should be successful.

According to students who read Kafka’s novel, the committee’s selection this year is an improvement over others in the past.

“I think [the committee’s] choices have progressively gotten better,” said David Katz-Doft ’05, who has read Kafka’s book. “[The Trial] has a lot of different meanings for different people.”

And hopefully for this fall’s freshman, the novel will not set a Kafkaesque tone for their next four years.

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Senior Writer