Williams Reads opens tonight.

Please join us for the Opening Night of Williams Reads as we gather to hear community members read from Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and other works. Cookies and hot chocolate will be served.

I asked the 7 students in my Winter Study seminar if they were participating. Six of them had no idea what I was talking about. My comments and questions are the same as they have been for the last three years.

1) I like the idea of Williams Reads, of bringing the larger community together in a shared intellectual event, a Mountain Day for the mind. Who came up with the idea? That Eph deserves some praise.

2) I worry that Williams Reads, instead of being just a shared book event, also tries to be centered around diversity issues. It’s as if the College required that Mountain Day feature a reading of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” There is nothing wrong with knapsacks, invisible or otherwise, but it would be unhelpful to conflate Mountain Day with political issues.

3) There is nothing wrong with having any given Williams Reads use a diversity-related book. The problem is that, as best I can tell, Williams Reads requires the use of such a book. We have had three Williams Reads, featuring three non-white authors writing about three non-white protagonists. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the politics are fairly obvious and, in my opinion, off-putting. Note that, unlike past years, the Williams Reads webpage does not mention (?) that the program is diversity-related. Is that an oversight or an attempt to make the program less political?

4) How popular is Williams Reads? This is what I am most curious about. If hundreds of students read the book, then ignore all my criticisms. The people in charge of Williams Reads obviously know students much better than I do. But, how can it be that hundreds of students read the book when 6 out of 7 of my students (none first years) were completely unaware of the program? (Selection bias, perhaps.) Two years ago, I was skeptical.

Again, I am a fan of the idea behind Williams Reads and hope that the program continues for 50 years. But 500 copies! Color me skeptical. Are there really 500+ students/faculty/staff at Williams willing to take hours of time to read and discuss The Namesake? I doubt it. (The test will come if even half of these diligent readers come to one of the discussion sections during 1/16 to 1/19. I would be shocked to see 250 people show up for these events.)

Diana reported that I was wrong.

People really liked it. I talked to a first-year on my team that had picked it up and had read almost the whole book in the first day of winter study. It was not sitting in unread piles; people were asking their friends to share the book with them after they were done reading it. This was a much better choice than a book about the election.

While the orchestrated discussions may not have been a big success, that’s not necessarily the point. I saw the book on my professor’s desk and we began a conversation about it. This would never have happened otherwise, because the chance that we both had read the book on his desk would be too small.

I am most interested in the empirical facts. How many people will attend the event tonight? How many books will be distributed? How many will be read? How many will attend the various events? Three years ago, the Williams Reads folks thought that there would be enough interest to justify an aggressive schedule of events:

Other community events will follow in the month of January. From Tuesday, January 16 – Friday, January 19, open community book discussions will be held daily at noon and at 4:00 p.m. Locations will be posted here at a later date.

I suspect that these were sparsely attended, if at all. There seem to be only two similar discussions scheduled for this year. I will try to attend one and report back.

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