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K-State asks freshmen to read a book in common

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, June 19, 2010, at 12:06 a.m.

Know someone who's starting college at Kansas State University in the fall?

He or she is probably reading "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins.

The university for the first time is inviting all incoming freshmen to read a common book in an attempt to spark conversation, build community and create intellectual common ground.

"It's fun and exciting to be reading and engaging with other people about complex and difficult ideas," said Karin Westman, an associate professor and head of K-State's English department.

"Our great hope, of course, is that through reading a common book, students get a sense for the type of conversations that are going to be happening in the course of their first year and into their college careers."

K-State ordered 3,800 copies of "The Hunger Games" — paperbacks that aren't yet available to the public. Each freshman will get a copy during campus orientation visits this month and be asked to read it over the summer.

The book, a New York Times best-seller, has been described as a 21st-century version of "Brave New World," in which a futuristic society is enthralled with a brutal reality TV show.

Stephen Kiefer, a psychology professor who co-chaired the selection committee, said the book is "like lightning in a bottle" and already has sparked discussion on campus.

"I've had engineering students, upperclassmen, come up to me and say, 'I never would have picked this book up on my own. But I read it in two days — and I had calculus to do,' " Kiefer said. "It's gone viral."

Programs growing

Common-reading programs are not very common in Kansas. But college orientation programs across the country increasingly feature books that students are asked to read and later discuss with new classmates.

Some selections have been controversial. In 2002, critics tried to block the University of North Carolina from a first-year program built around "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations," which contains passages from the book of Islam. Last year, the University of Washington raised conservative ire when it selected Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father" as its freshman book.

Earlier this month the National Association of Scholars, which advocates for a more rigorous and traditional college curriculum, released an analysis of 290 freshman reading programs.

The study, titled "Beach Books," found that books about multiculturalism and the environment dominate reading selections, and the group questioned whether college's book choices are too similar, too left-leaning and not sufficiently challenging.

According to the report, the most common book selected by colleges for the 2009-10 school year was "This I Believe," a collection of essays on personal philosophy solicited by National Public Radio and CBS.

Other popular selections were "Enrique's Journey," by Sonia Nazario and "Three Cups of Tea," by Greg Mortenson.

Picking the right book

K-State officials said they chose "The Hunger Games" because it raises thought-provoking questions about individuals and society. But they also wanted a page-turner, something fun to read.

"It can be a real bust if you pick the wrong book," Kiefer said. "It's a fine line. You don't want college students reading something that is pulp fiction ... On the other hand, if we assigned 'Ulysses,' we'd kill it for sure."

In the fall, the K-State Book Network will host a series of events related to the novel, including lectures, discussions and a campuswide multiplayer game.

"There are no repercussions" if a student chooses not to read the book, Kiefer said, but several teachers plan to at least refer to it in class. Some courses that plan to incorporate "The Hunger Games" into the curriculum include psychology, sociology, introduction to leadership and history of apparel fashion.

"One of the things we hope is that not just freshmen, but upperclassmen and faculty and even people in the community, will read the book," Kiefer said.

"Already, it seems to have really struck a chord."

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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