A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
May 12, 2005 Volume 35 / Number 8


The Book in Common Selection Process: A recipe for success?

Take 8–10 interested, articulate faculty and staff who love to read. Add 5–6 students of similar qualities. Stir in about 50 books of broad general appeal. Pour resulting impressions into 6–8 defined criteria (prepare beforehand). Simmer and discuss on Friday afternoons in the library. Sift and re-sift until 5–7 books remain. Once done, take remaining books and heat on high over open fiery discussion of favorites until done. Add icing with students in Butte Hall. Prepare, serve, and distribute widely to a campus hungry for intellectual stimulation. Serves 14,500!

This was the basic recipe followed for selecting the Book in Common (BIC) for academic year 2005–‘06, True Notebooks, by Mark Salzman. The BIC Group was convened by Provost Scott McNall to revitalize an essential ingredient in our students’ intellectual experience on campus. William Loker was appointed “head chef” but quickly sought broad expertise across campus—faculty representatives from each college, a student representative appointed by A.S., and staff from the library and Student Services—all of whom would bring their diverse perspective together to produce a BIC worthy of our campus and our students.

The goal? To select a book that would engage and inspire students, stimulate faculty, and become a focal point for shared discussion across campus for a year. We re-searched similar programs across the country; we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of past BICs; we sought input from colleagues; we searched the Web for possible titles; we defined criteria for selecting the BIC. And we read, together and separately, many, many books.

By the end of fall semester, we got down to six finalists, which we all agreed to read over winter break. The six finalists were Ishi’s Brain by Orin Starn, Totem Salmon by Freeman House, Stiff by Mary Roach, Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, and True Notebooks by Mark Salzman. To ensure that student opinion was truly reflected in our choice, Loker convened a directed studies class, UNIV 099, Book in Common Studies, with five students who agreed to read and write reviews of each title over the first six weeks of the spring semester.

Right before spring break, the BIC group got together with UNIV 099 students to make our final choice. Slowly, the list was winnowed down to three: Kite Runner, The Curious Incident and True Notebooks In the end, we could only choose one BIC, and True Notebooks was the winner.

We know the campus will love True Notebooks. It is the funny, sad, inspiring, discouraging story of an accomplished writer’s experience teaching creative writing in the LA Juvenile Detention Facility. Through this book, we see how the author grows as a human being. More importantly, the writing of the boys—most of whom are in for murder and awaiting trial as adults—gives us insight into the social forces and psychology of these “juvenile delinquents” we so often dismiss with a stereotyped remark. The book celebrates the power of writing as a route to self-discovery and a powerful window to peer into the human condition. Along the way, the book raises disturbing questions about how to deal with children who kill, as we watch these kids get sucked into the maw of the prison system.

The book has wide applicability in a variety of courses, including sociology, political science, English composition and literature, and psychology. Even if you cannot use this book in your class, we urge you to read it. You won’t be disappointed. And it may help you connect with some of our students, many of whom will have read True Notebooks and some of whom may have intimate familiarity with the issues.

The BIC group is Sharon Barrios, Political Science; Sarah Blakeslee, Library; Len Fisk, Computer Science; Mark Hall, English; Mark Levine, Business; Cindy Phelps, Geo-sciences; Jen Roy, Student Services; Brooke Rose, journalism student; Penelope Wong, Education; and William Loker. The UNIV 099 students are Jen Armstrong, Whitney Johnson, Tyler Kelly, Melissa Palmer, Barry Rider.

—William Loker, Associate Dean, School of Graduate, International and Interdisciplinary Studies