Originally named the First Year Reading Program, this initiative began in the fall of 2003 to provide first-year students a shared intellectual experience to start their academic career at WashU. The program was re-named the Washington University Common Reading Program in spring 2017 as the program now supports discussions among first-year students, parents & families, and alumni groups around the world.
The Common Reading Program aims:
to introduce students to the spirit of inquiry and debate that is integral to the Washington University in St. Louis academic community.
to provide a common intellectual experience for incoming students, as well as participating members of the faculty and staff.
to provide an opportunity for students to meet and interact with a member of the Washington University faculty in an informal discussion outside the boundaries of the classroom and formal academic requirements.
Past Book Selections
2017: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Written by an eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus introduces us to the lives of young scientist Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. After entering the throes of higher education, Frankenstein becomes consumed with discovering the secret to life itself. When the Creature comes alive with a bolt of electricity one night, Shelley takes the reader on a journey of wonder and horror as Frankenstein and the Creature learn to navigate life in their small village.
Reaching its 200th year of publication in the 2017-2018 academic year, Shelley’s novel still impacts a variety of contemporary issues from biomedical ethics to otherness to popular culture.
2016: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In this exceptional and somber work, acclaimed author and journalist for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaks through a letter to his son to explore the many—often tragic—experiences of being black in the United States of America. Coates blends elements of memoir, symbolism, and historical ruminations to convey the fear black parents feel for their children, the fragility of the black body in the face of systemic violence, and the chances of achieving substantive racial progress in the 21st century. Continuing in the seminal style of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Coates challenges the reader to observe the state of race in the US through a skeptical and critical lens, offering up the future as an ominous state of affairs for this generation to struggle with and shape.
Between the World and Me has received near universal acclaim from many, was the winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.
2015: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
In this remarkable and timely work, acclaimed author and Pomona College professor, Claudia Rankine, uses poetry, essay, cultural criticism, and visual images to explore what it means to be an American citizen in a “post-racial” society. Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV — everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.
2014: Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino
In this remarkable and elegant work, acclaimed NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino fuses legal manifesto and poetic memoir to call for a redefinition of civil rights in our law and culture.
Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life. Yoshino’s argument draws deeply on his personal experiences as a gay Asian American. He follows the Romantics in his belief that if a human life is described with enough particularity, the universal will speak through it. The result is a work that combines one of the most moving memoirs written in years with a landmark manifesto on the civil rights of the future.
2013: Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
In this series of forthright essays, Biss sets out to examine issues of race and identity in America through the lens of history and of family. She makes links between lynching and the spread of the telephone, both of which required tall straight poles in public places. She considers the legacy of Reconstruction in public school systems, particularly the New York City classrooms where she teaches, and questions the instruction to make her students “better people.” She remembers the white and black dolls she shared with her sister in light of the famous Doll Studies of Mamie and Kenneth Clark, and she rereads Laura Ingalls Wilder as she settles into the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago
Throughout, Biss acknowledges her own assumptions and privileges. Never hesitating to ask difficult questions and face the sometimes-embarrassing answers, she still remains hopeful about the possibilities of diversity. – Graywolf Press
2012: The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
Two kids named Wes Moore were born blocks apart within a year of each other. Both grew up fatherless in similar Baltimore neighborhoods and had difficult childhoods; both hung out on street corners with their crews; both ran into trouble with the police. How, then, did one grow up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence? Wes Moore, the author of this fascinating book, sets out to answer this profound question. In alternating narratives that take readers from heart-wrenching losses to moments of surprising redemption, The Other Wes Moore tells the story of a generation of boys trying to find their way in a hostile world. (Random House, Inc.)
Author, Wes Moore visited campus and engaged with students during the day in various settings before delivering his Assembly Series lecture, which was standing room only.
2011: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
Set during the “Siege of Sarajevo” (1992-96), this forceful but quietly spoken novel puts us at the side of ordinary citizens as they venture out in the city to buy bread or refill water jugs, uncertain whether a sniper or artillery shell will make their next step their last. In memory of 22 fellow citizens killed in a single attack, a cellist, in full sight of the attackers, sends up his music for 22 days to the hills where they hide, and to the heavens.
Author, Steven Galloway visited campus and delivered the First Year Reading Program Assembly Series talk. He also met with several small groups of students to discuss the book, his life as an author, and other related topics.
2010: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
In this engaging and suspenseful novel, a young Pakistani man tells his story to an American over a meal in a Lahore marketplace. The book explores complex themes of culture, identity, profiling, coming of age, and the immigrant experience.
Political commentator, human rights lawyer, Washington University alumnus and founder of www.themuslimguy.com, Arsalan Iftikhar visited campus and participated in several sessions with students. He also delivered the First Year Reading Program Assembly Series talk.
2009: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Author Julie Otsuka, visited campus and interacted with students in small group settings. She also gave an Assembly Series address to the campus community.
2008: Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert
Growing out of a groundbreaking three-part series in The New Yorker (which won the 2005 National Magazine Award in the Public Interest category), Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, brings the environment into focus and asks, “What, if anything, can be done to save our planet?”
2007: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
Einstein’s Dreams is a series of vignettes set in the spring of 1905, just as Einstein was formulating his theory of relativity. Each vignette presents a vision of time that might have passed through Einstein’s mind during this period. This book challenges the reader to stretch his or her imagination about time, to question ordinary assumptions, and to consider how conceptions of time shape human understanding of ourselves and our world.
Author, Alan Lightman visited campus and had the opportunity to dine with student winners of the “Finish the Story” contest. He also addressed the campus community in an Assembly Series lecture.
2006: One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All by Mark R. Rank
In conjunction with the Danforth Campus dedication and the theme “A Higher Sense of Purpose,” One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, by Mark R. Rank was selected as the 2006 First Year Reading Program book.
Mark R. Rank is the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. He is widely recognized as one of the foremost experts and speakers in the country on issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice.
In the book, Rank examines and dissects the issue of poverty in American and shows that the fundamental causes of poverty are to be found in our economic structure and political policy failures, rather than individual shortcomings or attitudes. He demonstrates that a significant percentage of Americans will experience poverty during their adult lifetimes and suggests a new paradigm for understanding and addressing national poverty.
Professor Rank addressed students in an Assembly Series lecture.
2005: “The Achievement of Desire” from Hunger of Memory and “Poor Richard” from Brown both by Richard Rodriguez
In 2005 the First Year Reading Program Steering Group chose two works by essayist and public commentator, Richard Rodriguez. Students read Rodriguez’s book, Brown, in their Writing I Class, and had the opportunity to hear Rodriguez speak about racial and cultural assimilation in America when he came to campus in October. Many students met with Rodriguez, had dinner with him and continued the dialogue throughout his two-day visit.
2004: Freedom: A Book of Common Readings, Multiple authors
In anticipation of the 2004 election and the Presidential Candidates’ debate at Washington University, the 2004 Book of Common Readings was anchored by The Declaration of Independence, one of the most important texts in political history both within and outside the United States. Accompanying primary texts by Frederick Douglas and others stimulated critical thinking about the Declaration and its legacy in debates about liberty, equality and justice. Professor Dan Shea’s introduction to the book challenged students to “claim their education.”
2003: Washington University 150th Anniversary Celebration Book of Common Readings, Multiple authors
In 2003, Washington University celebrated its 150th anniversary. The theme of this sesquicentennial year was “Treasuring the Past, Shaping the Future.” In keeping with that theme, a group of faculty and administrators developed a book of common readings for new students focused on the history and meaning of education.
The book, consisting of essays, poems and excerpts of longer work, included pieces by Washington University founder William Greenleaf Elliot, Washington University professor Gerald Early, W.E.B. DuBois and bell hooks.
New students met in small groups with members of the faculty to discuss the book of common readings and examine their goals for their own education. The cover of the book was designed by Washington University students from the College of Art.