Nothing Like a Good Book

To restore reading-for-fun as an essential part of campus life, a group of colleges is promoting lists of important, enjoyable books

COLLEGE students lead notoriously busy lives.

Only students who successfully budget their time between class work, extracurricular activities, and their social lives survive the rigors of the nation's top academic institutions. And even these masters of time management often neglect basic necessities like eating and sleeping.

In recent years, deans and professors have observed, with no small alarm, the decline of one of the most important aspects of student life, reading for pleasure. Unfortunately, with increasing demands on student time, recreational reading seems to be more a luxury than an integral part of the college experience.

Addressing this concern, a group of educators, booksellers, and publishers have created a program to resurrect recreational reading on college campuses. The program, called Think-Read, began as a publicity campaign aimed at students seeking enjoyable books to supplement their textbook readings.

Organizers have recently begun to expand Think-Read into a national program celebrating the important relationship between pleasure reading and academic life.

This month, Brown University introduced its Think-Read project to the Providence, R.I. community. (See reading list.) The Auraria Book Center in Denver is currently putting the finishing touches on its own program. Both are test projects for the National Association of College Stores (NACS), which hopes to promote Think-Read at a national level.

Think-Read was created in 1993 by Peter Gold, assistant dean of the undergraduate college at SUNY Buffalo, in response to some disheartening observations about student reading habits.

"For several years as a faculty member here, I had been continually concerned with how little students were reading," Mr. Gold says. "They often had no sense of reading except as a chore."

After several failed attempts to encourage extracurricular reading on campus, Mr. Gold issued an informal survey to professors, librarians, advisors, and administrators asking the questions, "What have you enjoyed reading? What books have been important to you, as a scholar and a person?"

The result of the survey is "The Undergraduate College List of Unrequired Reading... a September Welcome Gift to New and Returning Undergraduates." There are 48 titles on the list, one book a month for a four-year undergraduate career.

This original Think-Read list includes books as diverse as Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Charles Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle," and Rombauer and Becker's, "The Joy of Cooking."

The list was advertised on posters, bookmarks, and pamphlets distributed throughout the campus. "We wanted to surround students with the list," Gold says.

"Bookstores around here stocked the books," he adds. "We are told that the program was successful enough that some stores are still showing the posters."

The program was also successful enough to attract the attention of the NACS large-store group, another organization concerned with the role of the general book in students' lives.

Two members of that group, Gretchen Minney, director of Auraria Book Center, serving three institutions of higher learning in the Denver area, and Larry Carr, director of The Brown Bookstore in Providence, volunteered their businesses for the national program's first run.

"We were interested in the importance of the general book in terms of the University's mission, and how it is underrepresented in the college market," Carr says.

Brown's list was completed in May, after Carr gathered more than 260 nominations from students, faculty members, and the community-at-large and submitted them to a faculty committee. The committee chose 50 titles, including Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (Bantam), The Bible, Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" (Penguin) and "100 Years of Solitude," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (HarperCollins).

"Fiction predominates, but that's not a surprise when you're talking about general books," Carr said. "But there's a breadth of diversity on the list, it's hard to put a label on it."

Noticeably absent from the list are today's bestsellers. "It wasn't meant to be a popularity contest," Carr says. "It was a list of titles that we felt represented the Brown community particularly well.

"John Grisham has his royalties to console him," he adds, referring to the best-selling author who did not make the cut.

Like the Buffalo project, the Brown list is advertised on book marks, posters, pamphlets, and in permanent displays in the bookstore and the college libraries.

The Auraria Think-Read program, which will be announced in late August or early September, will also include a 40 percent discount and a store-sponsored discussion group on the selected title of the month.

Since the Think-Read lists mainly comprise old titles, no one expects to make a great profit from the program.

"Most of the list was from the publisher's backlists and on our shelves as older titles," Carr says. "We've moved those titles to the front of the store now, and even call it the 'front list.' But this is not a profit-driven type of thing."

While commendable as a public service project, the altruistic nature of Think-Read has made it difficult for the booksellers to enlist support from the publishing industry.

"[The program] wasn't immediate enough gratification for the publishers," Auraria's Minney says. "But I know the long-term value of developing a model for campuses, where students will be developing their adult reading interests."

Through the efforts of NACS, some publishers are beginning to take an interest in the Think-Read project as a way of positioning themselves in an increasingly difficult book market.

"Our interest is in providing time and support for any initiative that would enhance the position of college book stores in the college community," Paul C. Williams, director of sales at Routledge, says. Routledge is particularly interested in Think-Read. "Anything we can do to help our prime constituents, the college bookstores, is in our interests as well."

Although there has not yet been a coherent fund-raising drive among publishers, officials at NACS hope to secure funds in the near future to initiate the Think-Read program on college campuses throughout the nation.

"I would like to see the whole thing blossom," Minney says. "So that there is a new, national awareness of what reading a good book does to develop [a student's] individuality."

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