It seems fitting that in this week of change and inaugural excitement, the UW’s next Common Book should be new President Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.
It’s the UW’s fourth Common Book — volumes that are chosen each year to be studied by incoming freshmen and celebrated with campus discussions and activities. The aim of the Common Book project is to introduce freshmen to the University’s academic community through a shared reading experience and events related to the book.
“The story is that of a search for identity, identity as an individual and identity as a citizen,” said Gene Edgar, professor of education and one of two co-chairs of the 18-member Common Book Committee.
“As the story unfolds, the search also becomes a metaphor for a new definition of America, what it should and can become. The book is rich with material faculty and others can use to engage our students in meaningful dialogue about their lives and our society.”
Steven Oliver, assistant director for learning communities in First Year Programs, co-chaired the committee with Edgar. He said the book “will give students insight into the factors that helped forge the character and convictions of our new president” and will give educators campuswide a framework for exploring complex issues of race and identity with students.
Committee member Andrew Tsao, associate professor of drama, said in a statement to the committee that one of the best uses of the Common Book is to prompt students to reflect on their times. “This reflection should be intellectual, critical, emotional, and most important, immediate to their experience. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama is a book that connects students with history as it is being lived.”
Tsao added, “There is no student who will be assigned to read this book who does not share the common experience of race and inheritance in America.” In that way, he said, Obama’s memoir embraces “the concept of the common book program, illuminates its essential spirit and defines its greater purpose with eloquence, relevance and affirmation.”
The Common Book program is run by the Undergraduate Academic Affairs dean’s office and First Year Programs, with input from many other campus units, including UW Libraries and the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity.
The program started in 2006 with Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder. Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe was chosen as the Common Book for 2007, and The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea was the Common Book for 2008.
Obama’s memoir also impressed Deva Wells, a student committee member. “His accounts of encountering racism, and his reflections on its troubled, complex history, create a power and pathos that seem to invite the reader to share in his ‘coming of age,’ which he eloquently traces from Hawaii to Kenya,” Wells wrote. “Obama’s perspective on race relations in the U.S. is hardly reductive. Instead, he complicates the issue, which makes for a rich, engaging read that will challenge our conceptions of race long after we put the book down.”
Committee co-chair Edgar added that though the book was authored by the much-heralded new president, it was written in back in 1994, before Obama was even elected to the Illinois State Senate.
“The book stands by itself, regardless of the author, as an eloquent description of one’s search for identity and the meaning of the American dream. That the author happens to be one of the most respected people in the world only adds to the draw of this book.”
Other titles that the committee considered for the 2009 Common Book were What Night Brings by Carla Trujillo and Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. In all, more than 40 titles were nominated to be the 2009 Common Book.
For more information, visit online at www.uwcommonbook.org.