January Reading Groups

Monday, December 17, 2007 (Around 7 years ago)

Reading Group #1: Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer

Faculty convener is Baker Lawley, English

Meeting time: 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays in the Faculty Staff Lounge (lunch provided)

“What would it sound like if a foreigner wrote a novel in broken English? Foer answers this question to marvelous effect in his inspired though uneven first novel. Much of the book is narrated by Ukrainian student Alex Perchov, whose hilarious and, in their own way, pitch-perfect malapropisms flourish under the influence of a thesaurus. Alex works for his family’s travel agency, which caters to Jews who want to explore their ancestral shtetls. Jonathan Safran Foer, the novel’s other hero, is such a Jew an American college student looking for the Ukrainian woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. He, Alex, Alex’s depressive grandfather and his grandfather’s “seeing-eye bitch” set out to find the elusive woman. Alex’s descriptions of this “very rigid search” and his accompanying letters to Jonathan are interspersed with Jonathan’s own mythical history of his grandfather’s shtetl. Jonathan’s great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Brod is the central figure in this history, which focuses mostly on the 18th and 19th centuries. Though there are some moments of demented genius here, on the whole the historical sections are less assured. There’s a whiff of kitsch in Foer’s jolly cast of pompous rabbis, cuckolded usurers and sharp-tongued widows, and the tone wavers between cozy ethnic humor, heady pontification and sentimental magic-realist whimsy. Nonetheless, Foer deftly handles the intricate story-within-a-story plot, and the layers of suspense build as the shtetl hurtles toward the devastation of the 20th century while Alex and Jonathan and Grandfather close in on the object of their search. An impressive, original debut” (Publishers Weekly).

Reading Group #2: Excellence Without a Soul, Harry Lewis

Faculty convenor is Deb Pitton, Education

Meeting time: 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Thursdays in the St. Peter Room (wine and cheese)

“Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College, presents a biting, scattershot indictment of undergraduate education at America’s flagship university. The curriculum, he contends, is a crazy quilt of courses that leaves students clueless as to what they should learn and why. Professors are ivory tower eggheads fixated on their narrow subspecialties and incapable of offering guidance about academics, career or character. And students, coddled by parents and plied by administrators with parties, pubs and concerts, remain dependent and infantilized instead of growing up. Lewis spares no one-least of all recently ousted Harvard President Lawrence Summers, a “bully” whose administration combined “arrogance” with “lack of candor” and “chaotic lurching”-and probes rarely-examined academic fundamentals (his comments on the meaninglessness of grades are especially incisive). Unfortunately, his remedies, like a sketchy proposal for general education courses, are vague at best. And while he deplores Harvard’s failure to articulate “what it means to be a good person,” his discussion of date rape-concluding that women should be encouraged to “move on” and “rise above severe trauma”-is an ethical muddle. Provocative and insightful, Lewis’s call for an intellectually and morally coherent education does a much better job of raising important questions than answering them” (Publishers Weekly).

If there is a book that you’d like to gather colleagues together to read, let us know. We’re happy to add another reading group.

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