I attended my son’s college freshmen orientation day last week, and I was a little bit surprised to learn that John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” would be the common text for all incoming freshmen. It’s not that I don’t think “The Fault in Our Stars” is a well-written and entertaining read; I gave it a favorable review and recommended it myself in an earlier blog post. It’s just that I didn’t find it particularly engaging intellectually – which is not to say that every novel has to be so. Many of our favorite reads are potboilers that sweep us speedily along the surface of the text until we find ourselves surprised when we turn the final page to discover it’s over. In fact, some have described my latest novel, GOODNESS FALLS, in a very similar manner. Many have told me they preferred GOODNESS FALLS to SO SHELLY for just that reason. And that is totally cool!
My point here, however, is that a common text assigned to an entire incoming class of college freshmen should be something with greater heft and potential for “stretching” these young and pliant minds. The chosen text should be something more challenging to the students’ cognitive abilities. It should be something that forces the students to question long held notions of what is right, true, and good. It should be something that ennobles the students by their mere experience of reading it. It should be something that forces students out of their particular geographic and social comfort zones, the very ones from which many are soon-to-be removed. It should be something with a sense of social awareness and responsibility that inspires students to escape the egocentric understanding of the world with which many of my generation’s parents have cursed their children and to embrace a more altruistic worldview.
If I were the king of the world and could choose the single text for all incoming freshmen at every university in it, my choice would be Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” It’s the nonfiction narrative of Paul Farmer, a Harvard-trained physician and anthropologist, and his attempt to combat tuberculosis in poverty-stricken Haiti and a similarly endemic indifference to the Haitian suffering amongst too many Westerners. The title is a Haitian proverb that teaches that life’s problems never come to an end and that one should always look to the next challenge, for it is in the striving that a meaningful life is found, especially in attempting to leave the world a better place than we found it. Its Amazon page accurately says, “This magnificent book shows how radical change can be fostered in situations that seem insurmountable, and it also shows how a meaningful life can be created . . .” Kidder champions Farmer’s driving notion that “the only real nation is humanity.”
As I said, I enjoyed “The Fault in Our Stars.” I did find it a bit cloying and emotionally manipulative, but I also turned pages until there were no more to turn, which I feel is the ultimate determiner of a worthwhile read. As a mandatory common text for incoming university freshmen, however, I feel it falls far short of the purpose of such an assigned reading and plays more to pop culture than high culture. For anyone looking for an outstanding read for their young adult student or for themselves, I highly recommend “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” “The Fault in Our Stars” is the sort of book that may temporarily change one’s mood. “Mountains Beyond Mountains” is the sort of book that may permanently change one’s life – and the world.