In 2008, I had a chance to choose the three books that Stanford would send to all incoming students. It was a task I relished, and I remember the tall stack of books I had in the office: so many choices! I ended up choosing Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (luckily, this was before Diaz won the Pulitzer for that book; I don’t think we would have been able to get him after that!); Z. Z. Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! I had help from the Dean of Students’ office in arranging for the visits (and talking the three authors into coming for a very small honorarium!), though I was in on the planning enough to know how difficult the logistics were. But the books went out to all the frosh that summer and eventually the big day arrived. I wrote about it at the time as a kind of wild, rock-star-concert atmosphere in the auditorium as the students waited for the event to start. They were doing cheers and chanting the authors’ names over and over, so much so that Barry, Diaz, and Packer were more than a little taken aback.
When they finally took the stage (sitting in comfy chairs with me at the mike), the students just went nuts. But they finally calmed down and we spent an hour and a half in Q and A with the authors. The questions came fast and furious—and all three of the authors were magnificent, answering at length and engaging each other in conversation as well. I had been to several of these events but this was definitely the most successful: students seemed to have read all three books and wanted to talk, talk, talk about them. At the end of the event, they went back to their dorms where faculty from the writing program led them in continued discussion. And all that year I ran into students who remembered the night and came up to tell me that they “really liked” one or more of the books.
Stanford still carries on this tradition and in fact the 2015-16 books were chosen by Stanford’s President, John Hennessey: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and Cane River by Lalita Tademy. From what I read about the event, the students were fired up again, and they especially loved being in conversation with President Hennessey as well as the authors. I wonder which of the books they found most appealing and why. And which they will remember.
I think of events like this when I heard that students no longer read. I don’t think that’s true: students are reading all the time, especially on social media. And the students I talk to want to read more; I often meet students at our writing center—or a writing center on another campus—where students tell me they want more time for reading—“just for fun” reading.
So when I heard from a student who was at the three books event in 2008, saying he was working in San Francisco, I jumped at the chance to catch up with him. I met this student his first year, and while he was a science/technology major, I served as an informal mentor throughout his years at Stanford. We had a long reunion over brunch, and while he was telling me about his job (in computer design), he suddenly stopped and said “Oh wow, I just remembered the three books.” He went on to “remember” them in detail, dwelling especially on Oscar Wao. With a family from the Dominican Republic, he said he “felt proud” to be reading a book by a Dominican author and he talked at length about not just the Spanish in the book but the Dominican Spanish: “I wondered how all the other students were dealing with that language gap?” he said. We ended up making a list of books he wants to read (including Brian Selznick’s The Marvels and background reading on Hamilton). He’s a busy guy—but he says he spends at least one evening a week reading.
I think this former student is not alone. After all, story is at the heart of who we are as humans. People, I believe, yearn for stories. And so they read!