The Power of the Common Read

Julia Fishman

A look at this year's book choice with First Year Seminar Director Robyn Rosen.

September 27, 2019—The freshmen who entered Marist last month come from 32 states and 26 countries and have varied life experiences, but they do have one thing in common: they all read the novel The Power by Naomi Alderman, this year's common read selection.

"It's a nice starting point," said Robyn Rosen, Professor of History and Director of First Year Seminar. "As everyone is getting settled into life on campus, this is something they share as a part of the First Year Seminar."

Professor Robyn Rosen In her role as Director of First Year Seminar, Rosen chairs the common read committee, which is comprised of faculty from each academic school, student representatives, and staff from the James A. Cannavino Library and Office of First Year Programs. After reviewing many possibilities, the group makes a book recommendation that is then sent to the Office of Academic Affairs for approval. Individual professors teaching freshman seminars can use the book as they wish. For some, it's an icebreaker; for others, it's a focal point of the seminar. First-year students also write an essay based on the reading.

Now in its seventh year, the common read has always tackled contemporary topics such as immigration, race, and ethnicity. This year's selection, The Power, is a feminist science fiction novel that explores gender issues. The novel imagines a world in which women develop the ability to release electrical impulses from their fingers, leading them to become the dominant gender. The book is highly acclaimed; it was named "One of the 10 Best Books of 2017" by The New York Times and was awarded the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

This is the first time a novel, rather than a non-fiction book, has been selected, and Rosen believes that it's a strong choice. "This book seemed like a good inroad to talking about gender," she explained, noting that fiction can inspire conversation about difficult topics. "Speculative fiction and world-building resonates for students. This generation grew up with The Hunger Games and Divergent," she said.

However, Rosen freely admits that it's virtually impossible to have a common read choice that everyone will like. "My hope is that this book was a compelling choice as well as a conversation starter," she explained.

Lisa Yaszek The reading experience culminates in a lecture, usually by the author. Since the author was not available, the committee has invited Lisa Yaszek, Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, to give the common read talk. Yaszek has a distinguished record of scholarship that treats science fiction as a global language crossing centuries, continents, and cultures. "Young people--and old people, and everyone in between--should read Naomi Alderman's The Power because it's great science fiction," said Yaszek. "It's a book that has it all--romance, war, mystery, and science, all of which play out on both global and personal scales. There's truly something for everyone." Yaszek also feels that the book is good fodder for incoming college students. "It makes us reconsider our own most dearly-held beliefs about the necessary relations between gender and power."

Moving ahead, Rosen hopes to expand the common reading to be part of more expansive programming throughout campus. She is already thinking ahead to 2020 and has a theme selected: democracy and citizenship. "With 2020 being a presidential election year, there's so much we can do beyond the book choice and lecture so that the common read is a thread for students throughout the year."

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