September 2, 2008

Freshman Reading Book Draws Mixed Reactions

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The cold aura of Barton Hall was, on August 24, transformed into an intensely intellectual colloquium when the New Students Book Project invaded the massive gymnasium. The incoming class, along with others members of the Cornell community, discussed Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills. The book’s focus is on the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln at Gettysburg was sent to over 3,700 members of the Class of 2012 at the beginning of the summer. They were assigned to read about it for their first academic experience of the year, and then analyze it with their peers.
“We began this new student reading project eight years ago as part of an effort to enrich new student orientation with a common intellectual experience for our students and for the entire Cornell community,” said Michele Moody-Adams, vice provost for undergraduate education, at the event. “And in [the program’s] first year, August 2001, we read a provocative work of nonfiction by the biologist Jared Diamond entitled Gun, Germs and Steel. For the first time in eight years, we’re now reading another work of nonfiction, and ironically, we’re thinking, at least in part, about the power of guns to remake the words. But this time … words might have the power to complete the words of guns.”
In Barton Hall, three panelists — Prof. Ed Baptist, history, whose research focuses on the history of slavery; Prof. Hunter Rawlings, classics and history, a former president of Cornell; and Prof. Ted Brennan, philosophy, discussed the meaning the book has to them.
On August 25, students also met in smaller discussion groups to talk about the book with professors. However, the conversation didn’t end there.
In order to celebrate Lincoln, as well as the book, a variety of activities have been set up around campus. On Sept. 17, Wills will come to Cornell to talk about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Cornell’s copy of the Gettysburg Address — one of only five ever printed — was on display at the Kroch Library last week. Lastly, the University Library has set up a blog to discuss different facets of the book and Lincoln’s speech, from the power of the president’s words to what extracurricular activities he would be involved in if he went to Cornell.
But, it seems that University officials may have been more enthusiastic about the book than the students themselves. Overall, students gave Lincoln at Gettysburg mixed reviews, and some questioned why such a book was chosen. As the discussion in Barton Hall progressed, many freshmen exited the gymnasium, leaving the room almost empty by the end.
“I thought it was awful and the book was torture,” said one freshman. “The book was like a history textbook and was dry and hard to understand.”
“Everyone realized in 5 pages or 30 that the book is full of shit and we just stopped reading it,” added Edward Kim ’12.
History buffs and a slew of other students, however, were less harsh and enjoyed the subject of the book.
“I especially enjoyed the first part of the book, which gave the background of the Gettsyburg Address,” Christina Conway ’12 told the University. “Garry Wills talks about what the times were like, and how transcendentalism played a part in affecting Lincoln’s way of thinking. There are parts of the Gettsyburg Address that are similar to classical speeches, and the author shows what each part of the speech accomplishes.”
As classes get into full swing, the book projects’ creators hope that the first assignment freshmen complete at Cornell will have a lasting impression.