I will preface this by pointing out that the National Association of Scholars' assessment of freshman summer reading programs does raise some serious points. First, the ways in which these programs have clearly turned, as the authors say, into a marketing "industry" (5, 20)--a more advanced equivalent to the Victorian Sunday School prizebook, dare one say--sometimes with dollar signs visible to the students. The summer reading "genre," they suggest, runs to "inspiring stories, apocalyptic visions, self-assigned projects, identity crises, advice manuals, and current trends in human behavior" (38). (The authors note that the signifiers of a summer reading book sometimes extend to the titles and covers .) Second, the awkward fit between the summer reading programs and actual coursework (e.g., 26): as Average Faculty Member X has been presented with the text as a fait accompli, she is faced with the uncongenial task of trying to somehow fit the book into her course (or, for that matter, tyring to somehow base the course's theme on the book), whether or not she actually likes the book or thinks it's worth reading. Ergo, Average Faculty Member X may choose the path of least resistance and shunt the book to one side, to the students' understandable annoyance. Third, the near-absence of English professors on summer reading committees (27-28), which contributes to nonfiction's dominance over fiction in committee selections--72% of all selections, according to their current findings (37). (Hey, somebody thinks that English professors know something about literature! That's unusual these days.)
If only their own suggested reading list had anything to do with the reality of teaching freshmen, let alone the reality of a freshman summer reading program. Few signs of anything of "lasting merit," they complain: "Dickens, Dostoevsky, Austen, and Hemingway were not to be found. There was no trace of Twain, Tolstoy, Bronte [me: er, which one?], Wilde, Hawthorne, Douglass, or Steinbeck. No To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Count of Monte Cristo, or even Catcher in the Rye" (38). Moreover, among contemporary authors, there's no sign of "Marilynne Robinson, Thomas Pynchon, Wendell Berry, Donna Tart [sic], Tom Wolfe, and Don DeLillo" (38). Oh, and no history, either. To begin with, Mockingbird, Gatsby, and Catcher are all still standard high school fare. (Huckleberry Finn, too.) So why would you pick them for a freshman summer reading program? Then, the run of contemporary authors is maybe a trifle...strange. Tom Wolfe is on the same plane as Thomas Pynchon? More to the point, you're going to give Pynchon to innocent teenagers who have never encountered experimental prose before? Yes, students should be able to handle Hemingway and Steinbeck without any problem, along with Wilde, Hawthorne, and Douglass, as they all eschew the paragraph-long sentences familiar from much prose of the mid-nineteenth century and earlier. But it's been my experience that the style of early-to-mid-nineteenth century fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter) is different enough from contemporary prose that many students need practice before they can read it comfortably and independently. This is not at all a complaint about contemporary students; nineteenth-century classics have now largely been displaced by their twentieth-century equivalents in high school syllabi, and reading earlier prose is a learned skill. That is, it's not something you expect a student to do during an unsupervised summer reading program. The authors do admit the problem of choosing suitable material, but then glide right over it. Obviously, some students will handle Jane Austen comfortably all by their lonesomes, but an equal some (or sum) will be utterly baffled. And, dare one say, some nineteenth-century authors don't strike any particular emotional or psychological chords until a student is a bit further along in their development: I've found this frequently to be the case with Dickens (and, oh dear, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy...).
The foreword to this publication complains that summer reading programs confuse the "ephemeral"--those books speaking explicitly to contemporary issues--as an approach to "common experience" with the possibility of "ushering a thousand young people into some significant part of the common experience of humankind, by means of a work that others before us have cherished, and that others after us will cherish, as long as men can read and eyes can see" (10). The common experience of mankind is summed up by a suggested reading list dominated by Anglo-American authors (twenty-three American, twelve British--forgive me if I've miscounted), plus one Polish man (Conrad), three French men (Camus, Voltaire, de Tocqueville), one Spanish man (Cervantes), one Russian man (Dostoevsky), one Hungarian man (Koestler), one Nigerian man (Achebe), four men in the Greek and Latin traditions (Virgil, Plutarch, Plato, and St. Augustine), and a couple of books from the Bible. There are a grand total of three women (Hurston, Cather, and, of all people, Tuchman) and four people who aren't white (Hurston again, Ellison, Achebe, and Least Heat-Moon). Now, despite being the kind of professor whose syllabi frequently run to the canonical, it seems to me that "the common experience of humankind" is often the most boring, most basic part of any work. It's not much better than the dreaded "Since the dawn of time, human beings have..." sentence. (And perhaps "we" need to learn about experiences that "we" have not had.) The difficulties become apparent in some of the descriptions, like the one of the Aeneid: "An epic in every sense, The Aeneid is one of the masterpieces of Western civilization" (169). "Well, yes-s-s-s-s," the weary instructor writes in the margin. Others are strangely reductive: does one really want to read Richard III "because it is English literature’s best portrayal of political manipulation and cunning self-advancement, which are qualities that students need to be on guard against in college no less than in the rest of life" (164)? That is, the authors effectively "sell" their chosen works as sound-bite commodities in their own right--just take three Shakespeare plays and call your senate representative in the morning. The authors want politics on the syllabus (e.g., Parkman, Tuchman, Wilson, Chambers, Conrad, Kipling, Koestler, Ellison), preferrably their politics--just not recent politics, let alone recent novelists whose work might be political. It's no accident that the NIgerian and African-American works all date from the 1950s and earlier. I'm reminded of Victorian objections to teaching "Modern History" in the debates over university reform, where "modern" often meant "medieval."
Some of the suggestions, however, just make no sense from any point of view. No, Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism is not appropriate for incoming freshmen: if you think nineteenth-century prose is difficult for the average student, just wait until you try them on early eighteenth-century verse. The actual form aside, like much seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poetry, the Essay is loaded with contemporary and classical references that will make no sense to an eighteen-year-old. Nor is it Strunk and White. (You are not required to like Strunk and White to get my drift.) Meanwhile, any student who takes a class with me will get the "you must read Paradise Lost, the Bible, Shakespeare, and The Pilgrim's Progress" lecture, but I'm not sure that students would find The Pilgrim's Progress the world's most welcoming gesture, if you know what I mean. (And it's not a "a vivid introduction to Christianity that secular students can grasp." A vivid introduction to some forms of Protestantism, maybe.) Ditto Don Quixote, which is the sort of reading experience that improves with assistance, familiarity with literary conventions, or some combination of the two. Similarly, some of the classic authors are represented by some really odd choices: Hawthorne did write rather more interesting fiction than A Blithedale Romance. And I am...not sure that Harold Bloom is the best nonfiction author for incoming freshmen.