March 27, 2008

Frosh Reading Project Focuses on Civil War

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Next year’s New Student Reading Project book is Garry Wills’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Michele Moody-Adams announced on March 12.
Each incoming freshman and transfer student will be sent a copy of the book to read over the summer. During the orientation period and throughout the rest of the next academic year, Cornell will host group discussions, lectures, film showings, library exhibits, panel debates and other events promoting intellectual conversation about the book.
Moody-Adams said that author Garry Wills will probably speak at Cornell.
The text, which also won the 1992 Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, focuses on the 272-word address Lincoln delivered at Gettysburg, the turning point of the American Civil War and one of its bloodiest battles. Wills deconstructs Lincoln’s speech, exploring its intellectual roots in classical philosophy, 19th century transcendentalism, and the Declaration of Independence in order to discover why it was so effective.
The book was selected by the academic leadership of Cornell, including the academic deans of Cornell’s undergraduate, graduate and professional colleges and the provost and vice provost of undergraduate education.
Moody-Adams said she feels that the book is an especially appropriate choice given the current political clime.
“The book has much to say about the justification of controversial wars and political competition and divisiveness,” she said. “I think that students will find that the book raises a number of issues relevant to our time.”
Moody-Adams called the work a “book about the power of words” and stressed that the issues that it explores are of universal importance, accessible to international students and others who might not be very well acquainted with American history.
The book choice is also fitting given that the Cornell library owns one of the five known copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handwriting and that Lincoln’s 200th birthday will be celebrated nationally in February 2009.
The New Student Reading Project, in its eighth year, is intended to provide students with a common intellectual experience that will create a meeting ground for individuals with diverse backgrounds and academic interests.
The fall ’07 program earned mixed reviews from students who participated in it. Last semester’s book was Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup, a novel about personal and national identity in South Africa and the Middle East.
Lauren Cohan ’11 said that this year’s Reading Project fell short of the mark.
“I think that the New Student Reading Project is a good idea, but I felt it was poorly executed this year,” she said. “The book choice wasn’t very appropriate — most students didn’t seem to find The Pickup especially interesting or relevant — and I didn’t see many students taking the discussions of the book seriously.”
Shailly Prasad ’11 offered more positive feedback.
“I thought that the reading was interesting and that it prepared new students for the diversity that they would encounter during orientation week,” she said.