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Here's What College Freshmen Are Reading

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A stack of this year's freshman reads.
Heather Kim for NPR

A stack of this year's freshman reads.

The college common reading program is usually a freshman's first, unofficial assignment. The program is a way schools try to stimulate discussion.

Not every school participates in these programs, but the ones that do pick books – both fiction and nonfiction – ranging in topics from race and politics to climate change.

Every year since 2010, the National Association of Scholars surveys the schools that pick books. This year, throughout 481 colleges and universities, they found schools were more likely to pick new books over classics. 67 percent of common reading books assigned were published after 2011, according to NAS.

The University of Vermont chose a book published three years ago — a deliberate choice from the selection committee. The Vermont state school selected Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates, NAS's second most popular book of 2017. The book is a letter to the author's teenage son about being black in the United States.

A faculty committee hand-picked Coates' book from about 100 suggestions, said Abby McGowan, chair of the school's common reading selection committee. The committee looked for books with beautiful prose, relevance to students across disciplines, strong narrative arc and readable length.

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Although the college has chosen books from previous decades, McGowan says modern books help students know that "ideas are being created around us all the time."

Lone Star Community College in Kingwood, Texas picked 1984 by George Orwell. 1984's return to pop culture repertoire is one reason why LSC Kingwood chose a novel first published in 1949. In January 2017, the work of fiction rose to the top of Amazon's best-seller list. An adaptation of the story later found its way onto the Broadway stage for a three month run, starring Olivia Wilde.

"Social media has brought to the forefront how news or history or ideas can be faked or changed," said Darlene Beaman, chair of the school's English department. The book's newfound relevance, she said, relate to recent anxieties around fake news, and has led LSC Kingwood to jump into the conversation.

Belmont University, a private Christian college in Nashville, Tennessee, doesn't assign a common reading book. Instead, Belmont has a first-year theme —"ways of knowing"— and picks a group of assignments, like prose, books and a movie, instead of a single book. Freshmen take a first-year seminar where students read classics authors, like Plato, and watch films like The Lives of Others, a movie about surveillance in 1984 East Berlin.

"Films are a kind of text that can be understood and analyzed," said Jimmy Davis, chair of the committee that picks the first-year movie. Students "generally aren't accustomed to that."

Are you curious to find out what else college freshman are reading? Here are some common reading assignments at a few schools, ranging from a large, public school in Oregon to a small, historically black college in Florida.

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Lots of colleges have these reading programs; some are just for freshmen, and for others, the entire campus or local community joins in. The idea is that books will stir discussion — and unite a class or campus around a topic.
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