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UConn Reads: Three alternatives to 'Great Gatsby'

By Jesse Rifkin
On February 4, 2013

How many of you have read 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald?" asked my English professor last semester during opening day of Major Works of American and British Literature. Nearly every student raised their hand, doubtless because of their high school curriculum. "Hopefully you liked it," answered the professor, "because we'll be reading it in October."
This semester, UConn holds its second annual "UConn Reads" program, during which all students, faculty and staff are encouraged to read the same work simultaneously, helped by discounted copies at the campus bookstore. At semester's end, a culminating event centered on the book is held. Last year's selection was "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" by Nicholas D. Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times opinion columnist. In April, Kristof himself appeared to deliver a lecture, filling the Student Union Theater to capacity.
This semester, the book is "Gatsby." I have two problems with this choice. First, the author is not alive to discuss the book, as Kristof was for his excellent talk last year. Second, almost anybody who graduated from high school seems to have already read it.
My Daily Campus colleague John Nitowski in November argued for "A Game of Thrones" by George R.R. Martin. But the book is already enormously popular, ranking as the #21 highest-selling book of 2012 and #18 the year before. And keep in mind that, at 284,000 words, people should ideally be able to finish the book selection within one semester! (Plus I read it last year, and I'm pretty sure there are more characters than there are actual students at UConn.)
So here are my top three UConn Reads recommendations, with the two qualifiers of "author must be alive" and "not everybody has already read it." While not necessarily my three favorite books, these are three I feel would most be of interest among a wide variety of students, faculty, and staff - while still being "academic" enough for a research university. And they must be fun to read!
"The President's Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity" by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. The Deputy Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief at Time Magazine detail the relationships, both political and personal, between all the men who have served as President and the living ex-Presidents at the time. For example, my favorite chapter detailed how former Republican President Gerald Ford convinced top Congressional Republicans behind the scenes to not throw Democrat Bill Clinton out of office during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Ford was so worried about his role in this story getting out that he asked it not be revealed until after his death. As fraternities go, the President's Club puts the frats in Husky Village to shame.
"The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History" by Michael H. Hart. Hart. A historian, positions what he believes to be the most important people of all time. Some choices are obvious - George Washington, Albert Einstein, Julius Caesar - while others are virtually unknown - like Tsai Lun, the Chinese inventor who invented paper. The book proved very controversial upon its release, especially among Christians, for ranking Jesus Christ as only #3. Best of all, Hart peppers each of the 100 chapters with fun stories and anecdotes, so it's not just boring biographies of each person. (One minor quibble: since its 1992 publication, surely Hart would rank alter the rankings at least slightly today - think possible additions of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, etc.)
"Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock" by David Margolick. Though nonfiction, this book reads as emotionally as fiction - detailing the lives of Elizabeth Eckford, who in 1957 became the first black student to enter a previously all-white high school in the South, and Hazel Massery, the racist white student who became her biggest tormenter. The lessons of the evils inherent in the "us versus them" mentality continue to ring true today during the ongoing battles over Mexican immigration policy and same-sex marriage.
While I understand the reasoning behind the UConn Reads selection committee's choice in "The Great Gatsby," hopefully one of the above three books (or something similar) can meet the same qualities that made "Half the Sky" such a successful choice last year. In the words of Groucho Marx, "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."


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