As college students across the country stream onto campuses this week, Duke University's The Chronicle reports that "some" members of the class of 2019 had refused to read a book assigned to them this summer as part of the elite school's Common Experience Summer Reading program.
Many colleges have similar programs. In preparation for my first year of college in 1989, I myself read Jonathan Kozol's Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America and Nadine Gordimer's Something Out There. I can still remember my new classmates' passionate arguments about South Africa's apartheid regime and chronic homelessness in New York. This summer, the first-years at the college where I now teach are reading Piper Kerman's Orange is the New Black. At least they better be.
It's unclear how many of Duke's 1,750 incoming students skipped Alison Bechdel's highly acclaimed 2006 graphic-novel-style memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. That anyone admitted to a top university would purposely ignore their first assignment is, first and foremost, sad. These students have denied themselves a great read. The book, beautifully written and illustrated, won numerous literary awards and inspired a Broadway musical that swept the Tonys this spring. It's a bittersweet story detailing Bechdel's life growing up with a closeted gay father "who killed himself a few months after I came out to my parents as a lesbian." Heavy stuff, for sure, but higher education is about examining the heavy stuff. Through her unique lens, Bechdel explores the themes of family, growing up, and self-acceptance; themes we all can relate to.