Sunday, July 2, 2017

Black books and recent selections for Common Reading programs

Over the last 10 years, "common reading" programs have become increasingly popular. College and universities adopt, purchase, and coordinate discussions about a single book for first-year students. In recent years, one of the most popular common reading selections has been Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014).

In 2015, when Inside Higher Ed surveyed 121 institutions, they noted that Just Mercy was the top pick, selected by 10 different schools. When Ashley Bowen-Murphy did a roundup of college and university selections for fall 2016, she concluded that Stevenson's book was the clear favorite. In a survey of upcoming common read programs for 2017 from more than 300 institutions, Just Mercy is the most frequently selected book. In The New York Times, Dana Goldstein reports that Just Mercy has been chosen for selection by over 70 colleges and universities over the last few years.

In addition to Stevenson's book, Wes Moore's The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (2010)  -- -- about two boys with the same from the same neighborhood who make different journeys -- and Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (2015) were frequently selected. Just Mercy, The Other Wes Moore, and Between the World and Me are all autobiographical by black men, and the three books also share the same editor, Chris Jackson, and publisher Spiegel & Grau.

Since its initial publication, The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot has appeared as a recurring pick. The book, as noted on Skloot's web site, "has been selected for common reading at nearly 150 colleges and universities as well as at high schools and for 'One City, One Book.'" Similar to the works by Coates, Moore, and Stevenson, Skloot's book concentrates on a lead black figure and deals with issues concerning inequality and social justice.

Sometimes a single university will purchase more than 10,000 copies of a book for an entire incoming class of undergraduates, or the first-year students will be required to buy the book. As a result, common reading programs alone have prompted tens of thousands of book sales for Just Mercy, The Other Wes Moore, Between the World and Me, and The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. The common reading programs have greatly extended the profitability and popularity of those books.

Notwithstanding Coates's Between the World and Me in select cases, professors for African American literature courses tend to favor works that differ from those "black" books frequently selected for common reading programs. The syllabi I encounter typically privilege novels, canonical works published prior to 1990, and anthologies that showcase a large number of historically significant works.

Notes on University of Oregon's Common Reading Program
Common Read Projects and Between the World and Me
Haley Reading Groups

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