Go Big Read: A Campus Common Reader

by Kim on August 28, 2009 · 18 comments

One of the things I miss most about my undergrad English classes is having people to sit down and talk about a book with. Blogging is great, but sometimes I just miss talking with a group of people. I might be in luck, however, because this year UW is trying a new campus common reading program called Go Big Read.

defense of foodThe book selected for the program is Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. I’m not thrilled with the choice — I tried to read the book a year and a half a go (maybe?) and didn’t find it that engaging. I’m hoping my impressions will be different now because I’m excited about the overall idea of Go Big Read.

And actually, I just remembered Pollan’s other book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is assigned reading for one of my classes — I guess you can expect lots of Michael Pollan discussion here in the next few months.

Anyway, I’ve always been involved with freshman orientation and trying to help new students adjust to college experiences. Studies show that, especially for first-year students, having a common reading experience can help build community across a group. I’m not sure how well it will work for a campus of about 42,000 people, but it’s worth a shot.

Over the year, there will be a bunch of events to help promote the book and the program. Coming up in September, Pollan will be in Madison for a free public presentation and informal Q&A with the campus community — that should be cool!

I volunteered to be a small group discussion leader for the program, and I have training in a few weeks. I’m supposed to have read In Defense of Food by then, so that’s part of what I’ll be doing over the weekend. That, and trying to finish Infinite Jest, start working on self-hosting my blog, and getting a ton of sleep. I can’t wait, TGIF!

Have you ever participated in a common reading program?  How did it work?  Would you want to do something like this? What do you think about the choice for a book?

Other Links: Go Big Read blog; Go Big Read on Twitter; About Go Big Read

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny August 28, 2009 at 7:27 am

My university has a common reading program for all incoming freshmen. My class had to read Fast Food Nation – not my favorite book ever, but the small group discussion we had about it was excellent.

Also – I really should participate in it this year – for the past several years, my hometown has had a big community read, with loads of events around it. But I’ve never participated in that.

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Kim September 6, 2009 at 9:47 am

That’s cool — a town doing a reading program. I feel like that would be a really cool thing to do.

I haven’t read Fast Food Nation yet, but I want to.

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bermudaonion August 28, 2009 at 7:34 am

My son’s school does this – they call it the Common Book. His class read Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, but I’m not sure how the overall experience was for him.

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Heather August 28, 2009 at 9:02 am

My local region has had a similar program for about 7 years now. I have read 4 of the books and really enjoyed each of them. Unfortunately I rarely find anyone else that has read the book. The latest one I did talk about with the librarian and rather enjoyed our visit.

I have your book on my ‘to be read’ list. It is supposed to be very good information. Perhaps your initial reaction was more due to you being surprised by the content rather that the writing style ? I can’t really comment as I haven’t read it yet.

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Lynn August 28, 2009 at 11:02 am

Our college required reading book (Wellesley College) before first year was Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance (I can’t remember if Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring was also suggested reading, or if I just read it too because he referenced it so many times). I think I was in the minority of students who actually read it, though. Every now and then, students would refer to the book, but more along the lines of “Ha, that book we were supposed to read and I never did.” I think it’s a great idea, but I don’t know that everyone shared my view, in my one experience.

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justicejenniferreads August 29, 2009 at 5:36 pm

I’ve never really participated in a common reading program, but I would love it. I love my English classes because the discussions are so wonderful – I find that even if I didn’t find the book particularly engaging, the discussion makes me enjoy the book more!

I love Pollan’s writing. I find it to be both engaging and informative. I read An Omnivore’s Dilemma a couple years ago and have In Defense of Food waiting on my shelf to be read. I hope that your second go at the book (in preparation for a group discussion too!) will make the book more enjoyable for you.

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Valerie August 29, 2009 at 7:04 pm

I’ve read books that were chosen for a Community Reads type thing, but never got the opportunity to acutally discuss any of them IRL, unless it was with a friend or two that had also read them too.

Last year our library district chose “Grapes of Wrath” and “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan, and those were good choices.

A few years ago, the town I lived in chose “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, “The Kite Runner”, and “Habibi” (a YA book by Naomi Shihab Nye) and I attended the lecture by Naomi Nye. That was all a good experience.

Those are the ones that stand out the most. This year our library district picked out a couple books about the space age –I don’t remember the titles but it’s coming up in September so I’ll find out soon enough.

Anyway, I have “An Omnivore’s Dilemna” by Pollan but still haven’t read it yet.

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Margot August 30, 2009 at 9:29 am

I like the idea of community reading and I know it is very effective in many places. Portaland, Oregon comes to mind as my oldest daughter lives there. We were there for several months a few years back and pariticpated. They had all sorts of activities in addition to group discussions at local branches. They do a second one for children and their families. It’s a great idea. I’m glad you’re involved.

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Jeanne August 31, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Otterbein, where I teach, has a common book for the freshmen every year. In past years they’d had fiction, nonfiction, and memoirs. Last year it was a memoir by a child soldier, which was an eye-opener for some.

At Kenyon and in the surrounding community we have a “big read” with some books given away and a Kenyon Review-sponsored reading by the author. This fall it’s Louise Erdich and Love Medicine.

I love these things. It’s fun to read with others, and it’s especially fun to be “assigned” a book and then tell the first-years that you’re in the same boat, as far as discussing it–one thing I always emphasize is how different it is for a literature Prof to have only read the book ONCE!

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Sherrie September 5, 2009 at 8:09 am

Hi Kim,
I like your new blog, really great! I have read both of Michael Pollan’s books, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I really liked them. It’s amazing the things I learned about the food I eat. But then again, I’m not sure I really wanted to know all that, but the books were really interesting. Here are my reviews of them:

The Omnivore’s Delemma
http://sherriesbooks.blogspot.com/2008/12/omnivores-delemma.html

In Defense of Food
http://sherriesbooks.blogspot.com/2009/01/in-defense-of-food.html

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Kim September 6, 2009 at 9:47 am

Sherrie: Yeah, it’s amazing the things we don’t know about our food. I think reading both Pollan books together will be nice. Thanks for your reviews, I’ll be sure to link to them!

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Kim August 30, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Cool, that sounds like an interesting book for teenagers to read. I’d be curious what your son thought about it.

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Kim August 30, 2009 at 6:14 pm

If they’ve been doing it for 7 years, then some people must be reading :)

I’m trying to remember why I initially put it down… I think part was that it felt too simplistic, but I could be just making that up. In any case, my diet has been horrible lately, so maybe the book will get me back on track :)

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Kim August 30, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Funny :) I always figured that at least having people thinking about the same book would give you something to talk about — even if it was just “I didn’t read it.” I’m curious how many UW students actually participate.

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Kim August 30, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Yes, I’ve come to appreciate books I didn’t initially enjoy because of class discussions — that’s one of my favorite things.

I hope the second go around goes better too :)

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Kim August 30, 2009 at 6:18 pm

All those sets of books seem like great choices — books that go well together. I am looking forward to reading the book and attending Pollan’s lectures on campus; I think that will make his speech a lot better.

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Kim August 30, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Sounds like a fun time! I hope mine goes well — I’m a little nervous to be a book discussion leader, but excited too :)

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