The Year of 'Frankenstein'

Bicentennial of the classic inspires its selection as common reading for freshmen. Other selections this year highlight the impacts of science and technology, regional geography, and injustice in society.

June 8, 2018
 

Alongside housing assignments and financial aid packages, freshmen across the country are receiving their summer reading assignments, or common books, as many programs call them. For most colleges and universities, the purpose of summer reading is to provide a common thread for new students and foster a sense of community. While the ultimate goal is the same for many colleges, book selections this summer vary widely.

A popular choice this season is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. Hiram, Colorado and Siena Colleges have all assigned the book, albeit very different versions. Emory University, Washington University in St. Louis and Gustavus Adolphus College assigned the book last year.

Siena College chose a graphic novel adaptation by Gris Grimly, hoping that the modern take on a classic will show students how Frankenstein is still relevant today.

“We hope that through the book students will start to see our Franciscan tradition with its values on diversity and social justice as an antidote to the isolation, fear and violence that Frankenstein experienced because of the way he looked,” Meg Woolbright, first-year seminar director and professor of English, said via email.

Colorado College is using Frankenstein to spark discussion about science and technology ethics. The college assigned the original text edited and amended by Charles E. Robinson, a popular authority on the text, who included essays in the volume about the social and ethical aspects of creativity in science.

“In our era of synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, robotics, and climate engineering, this edition of Frankenstein will resonate forcefully for readers with a background or interest in science and engineering, and anyone intrigued by the fundamental questions of creativity and responsibility,” the Colorado College website stated.

Washington State University also focused on science and technology with its selection: Soonish, by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. Washington State traditionally assigns nonfiction texts, and it is beginning its second of two years on the theme of “Frontiers of Technology, Health and Society.” The book outlines 10 emerging technologies that could either help or harm society in years to come.

Provost Daniel Bernardo selected Soonish after reviewing three options put forward by a faculty committee.

“As the committee noted, this book is topical, easy to read and forward looking,” he said. “The content of the book is very interesting and thought provoking, and the cartoons are simply a bonus and add a little levity to the discussions.”

Common reading co-chair Karen Weathermon added that the book might help incoming students focus on their own goals when heading to campus for the first time this fall.

“We also think that the book has a strong connection to the student-development goals we address in a variety of ways with our students, especially our first-year students,” she wrote in an email. “What are their own 'soonish' goals, what activities and opportunities available on campus would help them achieve those goals, and what would be the impact for them of achieving them?”

Other popular books this summer include Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, assigned at Providence College and Northlake College, as well as Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, assigned at Goucher College, the University of South Alabama and Middle Tennessee State University. Both remain top picks after appearing on many reading lists last summer.

Some colleges assigned region-specific reads. The University of Wisconsin Madison, perched on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona in a state that borders two of the Great Lakes, Superior and Michigan, chose The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan, a nonfiction novel detailing the Great Lakes’ ecological crisis and concern for their future preservation.

“This book should appeal to our students, particularly given the rapid growth in classes that address environmental issues,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a press release. “Plus over 80 percent of our fall 2017 incoming freshmen come from states that border the Great Lakes, so for them this is personal.”

California State University Chico and Butte College also picked a book close to home. They jointly assigned All They Will Call You, a story by Tim Hernandez about the January 1948 plane crash in California's Central Valley that killed 32 people, 28 of whom were Mexican farm workers being deported by the U.S.

All They Will Call You tells a 70-year-old story with themes of immigration and labor that still resonate deeply in California,” Butte College president Samia Yaqub said. “This is a book that speaks to our time and place.”

Some other selections this summer include:

  • Hamilton: The Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording) by Lin-Manuel Miranda, assigned at Saint Michael's College
  • The Good Food Revolution by Will Allen, assigned at Gustavus Adolphus College
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, assigned at the University of Houston-Downtown
  • Tigerland by Wil Haygood, assigned at Miami University in Ohio
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, assigned at Duke University
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, assigned at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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