Summer Reading Program Panel Picks First Novel, 'The Namesake'

UNC’s summer reading program book selection committee has made The Namesake, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, its choice for incoming undergraduates to read and discuss.

As part of its summer reading program, UNC asks all new students – about 3,800 freshmen and 800 transfers – to read a book over the summer and arrive on campus prepared to participate in small-group discussions led by faculty and staff. The noncredit assignment, an academic icebreaker, is voluntary but strongly encouraged. Next fall’s discussion groups will be held Aug. 21; fall semester classes begin on Aug. 23.

UNC’s program focuses on discussion and dialogue, not the book itself. The goal is to create an intellectual climate in which students can come to their own conclusions and turn information into insight.

Published in 2003, The Namesake is the first work of fiction to be selected for the program. Committee members described it as a moving account of an Indian immigrant family’s experience in the United States. Lahiri traces the path of young Ashoke Ganguli as he comes to this country to study for a doctorate and then returns to India briefly to collect his bride, Ashima, through an arranged marriage. As their son, Gogol, grows up, he becomes increasingly embarrassed by his name – that of a Russian writer of special significance to Ashoke, his Indian culture and his family. In an act of independence, when he goes to college, he changes his name.

Set in the cities of Boston and New York, the novel provides an intimate portrait of an Indian family – in particular, their U.S.-born son – as they struggle to find a place for themselves in a culture that is both inviting and alienating.

It is Lahiri’s first novel and follows her short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize.

A nine-member book selection committee of students, faculty and staff began meeting in September to consider books for this year’s program.

“This book is rich with poignant examples of cultural disconnections and complexities,” said Joseph L. Templeton, committee chair and Venable Professor of Chemistry. “We are hopeful that it will broaden readers’ understanding of other cultures as it did ours.”

Committee members noted that their choice ties to the University priority of internationalizing the campus and the student experience.

In a statement about the selection, a sophomore serving on the committee explained the selection this way: “The Namesake tackles the issues of acceptance of one’s heritage against extreme social pressure to fit in and adapt. We believe that the protagonist’s search for his identity throughout this novel will offer the class of 2010 an important opportunity to look at another’s life and, in turn, examine their own. We hope that it will open new intellectual and emotional doors for incoming students.”

The selection committee started with 221 suggestions about books, types of books or general topics from members of the University community. Covering a diverse range of topics, authors and viewpoints, those suggestions included nominations and input from the University community that resulted from a campuswide e-mail, online postings to the reading program Web page and recommendations from alumni, members of the public and others that were sent to the chancellor’s office.

The committee’s criteria for selecting a book include finding a work that will be intellectually stimulating to entering freshmen and transfer students and will provoke thoughtful discussion. Other priorities are that the book should be engaging, relatively short and easy to read and address a topic or theme that students can apply to their own lives, such as societal issues.

The reading program, now in its eighth year, was among recommendations from a 1997 faculty task force convened by the late Chancellor Michael Hooker ’69 to enhance UNC’s intellectual climate. Other recommendations implemented included a first-year seminar program, in which new students tackle academic subjects in depth for an entire semester with senior faculty, and an Office of Undergraduate Research.

Since 1999, the summer reading program choices – all nonfiction – have been There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz; Confederates in the Attic, by Tony Horwitz; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman; Approaching the Qur’an, by Michael Sells; Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich; Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point, by David Lipsky and Blood Done Sign My Name, by Timothy B. Tyson.

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