February 23, 2009

Steinbeck’s Grapes Picked for Reading Project

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Since Cornell’s New Student Reading Project started eight years ago, it has been a rite of passage for all Cornellians –­­ akin to the swim test, climbing the 161 steps to the clock tower and finding that elusive apple vending machine in Plant Sciences. Last year’s incoming class read Lincoln at Gettysburg, by Garry Wills, and the 2009 selection is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Just as Lincoln at Gettysburg was assigned in time for Lincoln’s bicentennial celebrations, the themes discussed in The Grapes of Wrath echo the economic climate today.
According to Michele Moody-Adams, vice provost for undergraduate education, the final selection is made by the academic leadership of the whole campus, including all the academic deans, the head of the libraries and all the people on the provost staff. The group selects a book from a shortlist of five that Moody-Adams compiles during the course of the year.
Besides The Grapes of Wrath, the other books on the 2009 shortlist were Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Also Leopold, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin and Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman.
Moody-Adams said that the books are chosen based on their themes, for example A Sand County Almanac deals heavily with environmental issues. Moody said of The Grapes of Wrath that “It was one that people thought in addition to being a great American novel, drew on themes that would have a special resonance for our Cornell students at this point in history given not only the challenges of the economy but also the challenges of dealing with ecological disaster.”
The Grapes of Wrath is set during the Great Depression and follows a poor family driven out of their home in Oklahoma due to the Dust Bowl to make a life for themselves in California. Moody-Adams specifically mentioned the current drought in California as relevant to this theme, and said that she hoped that it would show students that not only is thinking about the environment intrinsically important, but it can also have an impact on the economy.
Both faculty and students are asked for input on the five books that make the shortlist. Some of the student staff at the Carol Tatkon Center were asked if they would volunteer to read the five books over the previous summer and write a review stating which book they preferred.
“I preferred Stumbling on Happiness but The Grapes of Wrath was my second choice,” said Elizabeth Onyango ’11, one of the students that read the books. When asked what she thought of the relevance of the themes to students’ lives, Onyango said, “I just chose it because in comparison to all the other books it was lighter reading, but now that you mention it I think that it would be a great eye opener.”
Not all students agreed, however. Many have had to read The Grapes of Wrath previously in high school. Shelly Chung ’10, said “It’s a good book, but for summer reading it’s kind of long, and I don’t know if it would have any relevance to people these days.”
The New Student Reading Project started in 2001 with Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, and involves group discussions during new student orientation week as well as an essay competition in which every student submits an essay and 10 winners are selected. Ideally the process is supposed to help students transition into Cornell as well as provide another venue for them to meet people. It has met with mixed success.
“I think the discussions helped me to understand the book, but not particularly to meet new people on campus,” said Libby Jauvtis ’10.
Still, the program does foster discussion throughout campus both by the new students and by the campus as a whole. Moody-Adams said that, amongst other things, she hoped The Grapes of Wrath would “encourage people to think about social and economic justice for people who are less well off than some of the students who come to Cornell, to think about the environment, to think about the consequences of homelessness and unemployment.”