Aug. 25, 2009

Students disagree over choice of 'The Grapes of Wrath'

Transfer student Kelsey Shields '12 wasn't sure that undertaking a lengthy reading assignment was exactly what she wanted to do with the end of her summer -- until she realized which book had been selected.

"As soon as I heard 'The Grapes of Wrath,' I knew I had to do it," Shields said. "It's a shoo-in for the current economic climate, and [it's also] a little bit of glue for all the new kids starting now. It's a common ground for everyone."

John Steinbeck's classic was Cornell's choice for the New Student Reading Project this year. Students gathered in Barton Hall on Aug. 23 for a faculty panel discussion, and on Aug. 24, they split into smaller groups led by administrators, faculty and staff members and graduate students to talk about the book.

Topics of discussion included the book's format and use of dialect, religious symbolism and biblical parallels, drought and crop rotation, the development of property rights and Steinbeck's attitude toward technology.

Librarians -- including Carl A. Kroch University Librarian Anne R. Kenney -- led several of the small groups. Some students expressed strong opposition to this year's pick, saying they had difficulty finishing it.

"Most of us are interested in reading books, and I think they should pick something that students on their own would go pick up -- something more engaging," said Katerina Athanasiou '13, who suggested that next year's pick should be a contemporary novel, such as Jeffrey Eugenedes' "Middlesex."

Others said they appreciated that Cornell chose a classic. Calaandra Hustace-Candea '13 joked that "The Grapes of Wrath" is a "book you have to read before you die."

"I'm really glad to be able to finally say, 'Yes, I've read "The Grapes of Wrath,"'" she said.

Campus libraries are hosting multiple exhibits on the book: "The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck's Great American Novel," featuring many editions and translations of the book in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Kroch Library Rotunda until Sept. 8; and an exhibit of maps and images related to the novel, "The Geography of Wrath: Mapping Steinbeck's Great American Novel," will be in Olin Library from mid-October until December.

Gwen Glazer is a staff writer with Library Communications.