July 6, 2010
Stanford's 'Three Books' program turns to ethics
Authors Tracy Kidder, Anne Fadiman and Joyce Carol Oates take an uncomfortable look at the world of privilege and the windows we have on the rest of the world.
By Cynthia Haven
Before this year's freshmen disappear behind the portals of Stanford University, Debra Satz wants to deliver a message from the world beyond the campus boundaries.
The philosophy professor and director of Stanford's Center for Ethics in Society is concerned about social inequities. So when she picked the selection for this year's "Three Books" program, she sought three literary works that take a look at "seeing things that are uncomfortable, and the way people wall off those things."
This year's three books actually two books and a pamphlet will be sent to all incoming freshmen for summer reading. They are 2009's Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder; Anne Fadiman's 1997 book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down; and Joyce Carol Oates' 1996 short story "The Undesirable Table," reprinted in pamphlet form, from her collection Will You Always Love Me?
All three authors will be on hand for a presentation on Sunday, Sept. 19, in Memorial Auditorium, for a discussion with incoming freshmen that will be moderated by Satz. Alumni and the campus community are invited to join a simulcast event, to be held in Pigott Theater. Further event details will be available in early September.
According to Satz, all three selections question "the assumptions we make about people, the way we categorize and stereotype on the basis of class and ethnicity," she said. "We are often wrong."
Kidder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of a New Machine and Mountains Beyond Mountains, follows a refugee from Burundi who had been a medical intern in a rural hospital. Deogratias fled the Burundi and Rwanda massacres in 1994 for the streets of New York City, where he worked for a dollar an hour delivering groceries to the rich and slept in Central Park at night. He dropped out of Dartmouth Medical School in 2006 to open a medical clinic in Burundi.
"We cannot help but be in awe of this gentle cicerone who survives war's ghastly labyrinth to emerge a better man," Marie Arana wrote in the Washington Post.
"After meeting this guy Deo, he'll never look at a grocery boy in the same way," said Satz of Kidder. "It's a good message about how we put people in categories where you don't have to deal with their humanity."
Human frailty and hunger
Fadiman's study, which the New Republic called "a profoundly memorable book," examines a human catastrophe: A Hmong girl has epilepsy, and as her condition worsens, well-meaning Western medical professionals and a loving family with longstanding tribal traditions have conflicting ideas about the meaning of her condition and what a cure might be.
Melvin Konner wrote in the New York Times: "If tragedy is a conflict of two goods, if it entails the unfolding of deep human tendencies in a cultural context that makes the outcome inevitable, if it moves us more than melodrama, then this fine book recounts a poignant tragedy."
Satz said the book is about "well-meaning people who could have done better."
"Everybody wanted to do the right thing. But because of their inability to understand each other's cultural point of view, they were unable to work collaboratively, so tragedy happened."
Oates' short story features a group of friends who claim, "We are a highly verbal people and much of dispute in our lives is resolved, if not satisfied, by speech." But then the story takes them to a place where they are speechless after the upper-middle-class group is seated at a second-rate table in a first-rate restaurant.
The New York Times wrote that "all that Ms. Oates will reveal is human frailty and hunger, infrequently translated into compassion. The only redemption she will allow is the communication of pain from one consciousness to another."
According to Satz, "I was looking for stuff particularly on class, and this is a short story that jumped out at me. People wall themselves off from the outside. No matter what you do something breaks through."
All three tales raise questions about "privilege in a world where people are poor" and "the window that sometimes opens up on the rest of world," she said.
"I want the students to think about this. That's the rationale for choosing these books."