one book, one _____

My favorite contemporary novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is the selection for One Book, One Chicago. I was surprised when I heard this, because I thought, “But… it’s a novel.”

I realized that I’d just assumed that the trajectory of One Book, One Northwestern was a general phenomenon, where the history has been:

2014-5: Whistling Vivalidi, Claude Steele (non-fiction)
2013-4: Last Hunger Season, Roger Thurow (non-fiction)
2012-3: Never a City So Real, Alex Kotlowitz (non-fiction)
2011-2: Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (non-fiction)
2010-1: Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder (non-fiction)
2009-10: Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman (non-fiction)
2008-9: The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quarmmen (non-fiction)
2007-8: Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin (novel)
2006-7: Othello, Shakespeare (play)
2005-6, Antigone, Sophocles (play)

Most obviously, a sharp movement away from literature. Do other universities have a One Book program? Has their trajectory been like Northwestern’s, or have they remained more literary-focused?

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

4 thoughts on “one book, one _____”

  1. At my institution, it alternates between fiction and non-fiction on a quite clear and regular pattern–whether it has involved literature depends significantly on what your definition of literature is.


  2. Starting with the 2014 book and going back to 2001, Cornell’s were:

    Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (Lakhous, 2008 novel)
    When the Emperor was Divine (Otsuka, 2003 novel)
    The Life Before Us (Gary, 1975 novel)
    Homer & Langley (Doctorow, 2009 novel)
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Dick, 1968 novel)
    Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck, 1939 novel)
    Lincoln at Gettysburg (Wills, 1992 history/non-fiction)
    The Pickup (Gordimer, 2001 novel)
    The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald, 1925 novel)
    Things Fall Apart (Achebe, 1958 novel)
    The Trial (Kafka, written 1914, published 1925, fiction)
    Antigone (Sophocles, 441 BCE play)
    Frankenstein (Shelley, 1818 novel)
    Guns, Germs, and Steel (Diamond, 2001 non-fiction or semi-fiction, depending on who you ask)

    So, far more fiction than non-fiction, and within the fiction category a possible trend toward more recently published works, even without the Sophocles outlier.

    I suspect that if you were looking for a sense of the local pecking order among non-STEM departments on a college campus, examining the lists of finalists and winners for the first year book project wouldn’t be a bad place to start. (That being said, I’d be a bit surprised if any Cornell sociologist has ever nominated a book, because Cornell’s first year reading project events almost always fall during the ASA meetings.)


  3. Wisconsin’s has been mostly nonfiction
    2014-15 I Am Malala (Malala Yousafzai)
    2013-2014 A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki) (the only fiction on the list)
    2012-2013 Radioactive (Lauren Redniss)
    2011-2012 Enrique’s Journey (Sonia Nazario)
    2010-2011 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
    2009-2010 In Defense of Food (Michael Pollan)


  4. I sat on the committee choosing UNC’s first-year recommended reading book for two years. In both years, we reviewed hundreds of books that were nominated and whittled them down, ultimately choosing nonfiction books (the complete list is here). Due to the sheer volume of nominees, the whole committee didn’t read every book; we simply had to divide the labor. I think the result (picking nonfiction books) was in part a function of the committee structure: it’s harder to make a substantive case to the rest of the committee for any given novel than it is to make a case for a work of nonfiction. That’s because nonfiction books have elements that can be more easily assessed and compared to one another, while the literary qualities of fiction are inherently more subjective, hence harder to promote to a committee who hasn’t all read all the books.

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