It’s clear that Williams Reads has the potential to benefit the College. A campus-wide reading program offers a way to unite community members of varying ages and interests to swap perspectives. Moreover, the program provides a way for first-years to dive headfirst into intellectual and social life here – a taste of the profound conversations that take place on a daily basis both inside and outside of the classroom.
However, although the value of Williams Reads is obvious, its implementation has left much to be desired. Even among first-years, participation was low this year, and Crescent, this year’s book choice, has proven to be an unpopular one. Thus, if the College wishes to continue the program, some changes should be considered.
To begin, Williams Reads must adopt a new timeline. This year, books were distributed to non first-years at the start of the semester. Consequently, students who wished to participate in campus-wide discussions had to add Crescent to the pile of other readings professors assigned each week. Once school gets rolling, pleasure reading takes a backseat to required texts. If the program distributed the books earlier – before the start of summer break – students wouldn’t have to make the choice between participating in this campus-wide event and their inevitably demanding classes.
Secondly, the process by which the Williams Reads novels are selected should be reworked. This year’s choice certainly lends itself to events and programming that touch on important topics. There is nothing wrong with using a book to generate social discussion. Conversations about race, religion and international politics, however, can often feel forced and encourage cookie-cutter treatment of these issues, particularly if the book contains explicit links to these themes. First-years discussing the book in an organized entry meeting may feel pressured to react in a prescribed manner. To generate the fruitful exchange of perspectives that Williams Reads promotes, we should select books that prompt a variety of interpretations. In the case of Williams Reads, selecting a book that is good on its own merits will not spark one ready-made conversation; it will spark many diverse, organic conversations.
Books exploring themes related to college life might encourage more students to participate in the program. Novels that have been widely discussed or have generated controversy in the press may be another good option, as more students are familiar with these reads. Popularity does not necessarily imply poor quality; there is an endless list of best-selling books with social relevance, superior writing and complex themes likely to generate lively discussion.
Ultimately, all members of the College community have a vested interest in improving this program. In addition to the community-building potential that Williams Reads promises, it is crucial to consider the financial interests at stake as well. Between books, speakers and other events, the initiative requires a substantial investment of College funds. To get the biggest return on our investment, Williams Reads should cultivate community, spark insightful discussion and offer up a read that is both enjoyable and educational. We at the Record are optimistic that this program has yet to reach its potential and will continue to improve with a few tweaks.