Before arriving on campus next fall, incoming Cornellians will read Romain Gary’s The Life Before Us, a novel about an illiterate Arab boy and the former prostitute and Holocaust survivor who raises him in the immigrant slums of Paris, according to Laura Brown, vice provost of undergraduate education.
Published in France in 1975, the novel explores events after World War II and their effects on those who live on the society’s periphery, said Sarah Jones, assistant dean of students and chair of New Student Programs.
According to Brown, the University chose the book for the New Student Reading Project because it contains themes to which Cornell students can easily relate, including, she said, the Arab-Israeli conflict, modern religious practices, social inequality and cultural divisions.
“It is a novel which we believe will have a wide and direct appeal to Cornell’s new students because it takes up many topics that are relevant to their experiences at Cornell and to their engagement with the issues and challenges of the present moment,” Brown said.
Prof. Ross Brann, Near Eastern studies, said he believes incoming students will be able to connect with the novel.
“I expect that the themes of The Life Before Us will resonate with readers because of the cultural, religious, socioeconomic and political diversity of the Cornell new student body,” Brann said.
Jones also noted that the story speaks in particular to the challenge incoming students face as they acclimate to college life.
“It’s a story of transitions and how you handle different things that are happening around you, and I think that dovetails nicely with what new students are going through as they transition into adulthood when they come to school,” Jones said.
As part of the New Student Reading Project, students will attend one of six “Cornell Contexts” presentations, each of which will explore a contemporary topic related to the novel’s themes, Brown said. In addition, smaller seminars will give students the opportunity to discuss the book with a group leader.
Jones noted that the variety of issues addressed by the book provides a rare opportunity for the New Student Reading Project.
“I think it’s a very different book, which is kind of exciting and I hope it’ll encourage people to look at it through different lenses,” Jones said.
Brown and Jones both expressed the hope that the new activities of the New Student Reading Project activities will encourage interaction between freshmen and faculty members during Orientation Week, allowing students to establish relationships with professors early in the semester.
“It’s really important to me that students leave orientation knowing a few faculty and feel that [faculty members] are real people too,” Jones said.
Incoming students in recent years tackled titles including E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley, Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Original Author: Caroline Flax