March 6, 2008

'Lincoln at Gettysburg' selected for the 2008-09 New Student Reading Project

Cornell's next incoming class and much of the rest of the Cornell community will read Garry Wills' Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America," as part of the 2008-09 New Student Reading Project.

The selection was announced by Michele Moody-Adams, vice provost for undergraduate education.

Lincoln's 272-word address at Gettysburg, Pa., the site of the 1863 battle that was the turning point of the Civil War, has "become a symbol of national purpose, pride and ideals," Wills writes. "The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration."

"Lincoln at Gettysburg" invites readers to reflect on the ideals that should shape America's national purpose and allows them to consider the political implications of race, the nature of leadership, the challenge of commemorating the sacrifices of those who fight in a contested war, the bearing of the past on the present and the dynamics of politics, according to Moody-Adams. Wills' book is a compelling work of history and a rich and illuminating analysis of the power of effective communication and well-crafted political rhetoric, she said.

The reading project also will connect the Cornell community to the national commemoration in February 2009 of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. Cornell's founding in 1865 was an outcome of Lincoln's commitment to the Morrill Act, which created the first land-grant institutions of higher education. Cornell University Library has one of the five known copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's handwriting.

"Lincoln at Gettysburg" was chosen by Cornell's academic leadership from a list of more than 100 titles submitted by the Cornell community. Titles from this year's shortlist of books included "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman, "China Shakes the World" by James Kynge, "Free Culture" by Lawrence Lessig and "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien.

This will be the eighth year of Cornell's New Student Reading Project, designed to provide a common intellectual experience for new and transfer students and the Cornell community through campus-wide events and group discussions with students, faculty and staff. Incoming students receive copies of the selected book to read over the summer, and Cornell's Reading Project Web site provides background and enrichment for readers.

On Aug. 24 during freshman orientation, a panel of Cornell faculty members will discuss the book, and invite student questions, in preparation for the next day's meetings of more than 220 small discussion groups. As in past years, 10 essay contest winners from the incoming class will receive gift certificates to the Cornell Store.

During the academic year, lectures, panel discussions, films and other events will relate to the reading project to encourage discussion of the issues raised by "Lincoln at Gettysburg." Members of the Ithaca community, high school students across the state and Cornell alumni also will take part in reading and discussion groups of their own.

The book should be potentially as enriching for non-American readers who may have little knowledge of American history as for American readers looking for a deeper understanding of their national history, Moody-Adams said.

For the many incoming students who will be engaged with the details of the national election this fall, "Will's discussions of the dynamics of politics should prove especially insightful," Moody-Adams said. The book "offers no simplistic analyses and no easy answers. Instead, it asks the reader to reflect on the complexities of political life and political agency, and to resist the tendency to think in terms of simple dichotomies or absolutes divorced from the contingencies of political life."