Since 2002, incoming Michigan State University freshmen have been reading the same book each year as part of the One Book, One Community reading program. And each year, with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” as the notable exception, the book’s author visits campus for a couple of days to further discuss their book’s themes.
This past year, MSU and East Lansing landed a big fish when Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s book “My Beloved World” was selected and the justice participated in several book-related events.
In the 1960s, all freshman and sophomores — with a few exceptions — read a lot of the same books as part of the “Basic College Curriculum,” where students were required to take six classes each in American thought and language, humanities and natural science.
The reading lists, along with the multiple choice finals, were exactly the same for each section.
So all students in ATL 111 would read Arthur Miller, Cotton Mather, James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Paine. In later classes, all students would read books by authors such as Mark Twain, Willa Cather and A.B. Guthrie. Somewhere in there would be “Bartleby: The Scrivener” by Herman Melville, and selections form Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allen.
Today’s students read many of the same books that their counterparts did in the ‘60s. While this includes books by the holy trinity of Earnest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, contemporary books like Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club” are also required reading.
According to Curious Book Shop and Archive Book Shop owner Ray Walsh, who's been selling used books to students for nearly 50 years, today’s undergraduates are still reading books by authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury for class.
What’s changed, however, is how students access books and if the professor even requires books.
John Aerni Flessner, an assistant professor at MSU’s Residential College of Arts and Humanities, said classes lacking a book requirement is the biggest change he’s seen in classroom instruction. He is teaching the class Disease and Public Health in Africa this fall, which has no books, but lots of reading assignments.
Also, instead of a hard copy of a book, students today might use a digital download.
They typically can only be accessed by a code, which requires a fee ranging anywhere from $30 to $100.
The lower demand for books has affected bookstores. At one time there were five bookstores in East Lansing. Now there are three.
Aerni-Flessner said customizing readings helps provide alternative viewpoints.
He offered the example of students reading about Christopher Columbus.
“Today, the reading might be supplemented by journal articles considering Columbus’ impact on the environment, social norms and Native Americans,” he said. “The readings are not ignoring the canon, but help students understand, ‘Why I am reading this?’” Reading lists from the ‘60s, provided by the MSU Archives, show students were reading books that stressed diversity, such as Baldwin’s “Native Son,” but contemporary reading lists show much broader diversity.
“50 years ago you might find one book on Native-American culture: Dee Brown’s ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded, Knee,’” Aerni-Flessner said.
Tom Muth, co-owner of Collegeville Textbook Company, said in the 10 years the Grand River Avenue store has been in business he’s seen dramatic changes in how books are bought and sold.
“The biggest thing I notice is professors are not requiring as many books, but are relying on lectures and materials that can only be accessed online with a special code. Codes are somewhat less expensive than buying a textbook, but create an atmosphere where they can’t be resold,” he said.
Muth also said there are far more contemporary authors and authors from diverse populations along with books in more unusual formats. Many classes now use graphic novels.
He also says brick and mortar bookstores still have an advantage over online sales.
“We actively curate our books using professor’s lists. If you go online you may find 15 versions of the book you are looking for and, of course, we make it easy during buy back,” Muth said.
The second major change noted by Muth is students are waiting longer to buy their books.
“Students are waiting to see which books on the list are really required, and which ones they will be tested on,” Muth said. Students of the ‘60s remember coming away with an armful of books for a class and many would only be recommended additional readings.
For the most startling image of how the relationship of book and college education has changed in the last 50 years, you need only walk in the MSU Library just south from Beaumont Tower.
Fifty years ago, the library was brimming with books and research materials used in class or writing papers.
Universities boasted about the number of books in their library. Today, the MSU Library seems to have more computers than books, and is home to the MSU Special Collections. Special Collections houses real books, which are sometimes displayed under glass like artifacts from a lost era.
What does the future hold for books?
Muth likes to quote his deceased father, a distinguished MSU Communications professor. “No form of communication has ever become extinct."