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Oviatt Spotlight: Freshman Common Read

Contributed by Susanna Eng-Ziskin

Common Read Poster by Nivardo Esteban

Common Read Poster by Nivardo Esteban

CSUN’s Freshman Common Read Program is turning 8 this year. Cheryl Spector, Director of Academic First Year Experiences, began contemplating the idea in 2004. She was inspired at a First Year Experience Conference by similar initiatives at other campuses. In 2007 her dream became reality, and the inaugural book was chosen: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. There are a myriad of benefits to a program like this, not the least of which, according to Spector, is that “Students are invited to join a community of scholars united by the book in common; they are aware of themselves as embarking on a significant journey symbolized by the book.”

CSUN’s Common Read Program has specific selection criteria and actively seeks books that engage freshmen, encourage them to grow intellectually, stimulate thought and discussion in a variety of courses, value diverse cultural perspectives, and address contemporary social issues.

This year’s choice is The Postmortal, by Drew Magary. The novel envisions a not-too-distant future in which scientists stumble upon a cure for aging. It raises moral and ethical questions about overpopulation, mortality, the environment, families, birth, marriage, death, interpersonal relationships, income inequality, and the role of government in the lives of the governed. Previous selections have included Nickel and Dimed, The Soloist, The Glass Castle, and Garbology, all of which have offered similar opportunities for serious discussion.

When possible, the author of each year’s selected book is invited to speak at Freshman Convocation. That tradition continued when Drew Magary gave the keynote address at this year’s event, which was held on the Oviatt Library lawn on September 4.

Common Read Poster by Nivardo Esteban

Common Read Poster by Kyle Smith

Library Dean Mark Stover is a staunch supporter of the Freshman Common Read and generously provides funding, space and time for the program. As he sees it: “The Freshman Common Read Program at Cal State Northridge is a great example of how universities, including CSUN, can utilize proven high impact practices to bring first-year students together in a common, shared experience.  I believe that it is important for the Oviatt Library to be involved in this particular initiative for a variety of reasons.  It allows library faculty and staff to be involved with students in a direct and impactful way, fulfilling several of the Library’s core values:  excellence in supporting teaching and learning; serving our students; an appreciation for diversity and creativity; and collaboration across campus.  In addition, it encourages students to read in a reflective way, an activity that librarians have been engaged in for centuries and which will continue to be part of our enduring mission regardless of technological advances in society or in the academy.”

Spector agrees, “Partnering with the library has been essential because of the library’s key contributions to the program’s success.” She notes that the library staff has not only helped to design entry-level projects for students that encourage them to make use of library resources, but they also have  created “lovely bookmarks and a fabulous American Library Association-inspired poster series to foreground and publicize what might otherwise have seemed like a dry scholarly exercise devised by an English professor.”

The Oviatt Library indeed has played a consistent and large role in the marketing of the program. Prior to the Learning Commons renovation, there were yearly lobby exhibits highlighting themes from that year’s book. For example, the inaugural exhibit for The Things They Carried focused on the 1960’s and included materials from the Special Collections and Archives Department. The Library also has collaborated with other campus entities to create these exhibits. In 2012, the campus organization Unified We Serve curated an exhibit highlighting CSUN students and community members in conjunction with One Amazing Thing. For The Soloist, Music and Media Instruction Technology Coordinator Rueyling Tsay planned and implemented a series of chamber concerts; with the help of Music and Media Supervisor Dean Arnold and a student employee, they even recreated Pershing Square in the Music and Media Department.

Poster from the "Read" campaignIn addition, Librarian Susanna Eng-Ziskin and Projects and Programs Coordinator Joyclyn Dunham have created distinctive bookmarks for each year’s book. For the first time, this year’s bookmark features the artwork of a CSUN student, Nivardo Esteban (art major, class of 2014). Eng-Ziskin also photographs first-year students and campus administrators for a READ campaign to promote the book and the act of reading itself.

The campus-wide book selection committee includes students, staff and faculty members. The Oviatt Library was well represented on the committee this year as librarians Kimberly Embleton, Susanna Eng-Ziskin, Kate Gurewitz, Lindsay Hansen and Jamie Johnson all volunteered to serve. In fact, this year’s book was nominated by Embleton. Members of the CSUN community (including students, faculty, staff, and alumni) are invited to submit nominations to be considered for next year’s Common Read selection.