Acclaimed 'Three Books' authors explore how the past affects the present

L.A. Cicero Book covers

Stanford's "Three Books" program usually focuses on works of contemporary literature—so this summer's selections offer an interesting variation on the traditional theme with a work of fiction, a memoir and a non-fiction analysis of success.

The books—Lan Samantha Chang's Hunger, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success and Abraham Verghese's My Own Country: A Doctor's Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS—will be mailed to incoming Stanford freshmen. Verghese, a specialist in infectious diseases, is a professor of medicine at Stanford. Chang, a former Stegner Fellow, is director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Gladwell is a writer for The New Yorker.

The authors are scheduled to appear together on a Sept. 16 panel at New Student Orientation.

The books were selected by a team this year: drama Professor Harry Elam, senior associate vice provost for undergraduate education, and English Professor Michele Elam, director of the Program in African and African American Studies. They will moderate the September panel.

Chang's Hunger, a collection of stories that mainly describe the experiences of Chinese immigrants to America, studies the consequences of acknowledging memories, when sharing them risks reliving physical, emotional or spiritual hunger.

In one of her stories, the narrator says, "There was a hole in our house, like a great mouth, filled with love words and lost objects." Chang elaborated on the passage for the Penguin Book Club: "For years, our family tiptoed around a great hole of silence from the past. I learned that the past was something to be avoided at all costs. But at the same time, I hungered to know more about it, because it was the only clue to understand my parents, whom I loved deeply."

Verghese's moving account describes his work at a Veterans Affairs Hospital in Johnson City, Tenn., working with the AIDS epidemic and its impact on rural communities. Verghese, born in Ethiopia to Indian parents, returned in the mid-1980s to the area where he served his residency.

Calling it an "eloquently written book" with "more than a touch of the poet," the New York Times review noted: "By the end of the book, Dr. Verghese finds the burden of patients, death and dying unbearable, and leaves this territory he had hoped to make his own, this city he had claimed as his own country."

In Outliers, Gladwell describes his "10,000-Hour Rule": He maintains that greatness in any field is a function of time—specifically, it requires performing the particular task for 10,000 hours. It also describes the context of genius, and argues that genius does not rely solely on individual talent, ambition or hard work—it relies on factors within the community and society as a whole.

"If you hold it up to the light, at the right angle, you can read it as a coded autobiography: a successful man trying to figure out his own context, how success happened to him and what it means," according to Time magazine's Lev Grossman. "It makes geniuses look a bit less special and the rest of us a bit more so."

Gladwell is the son of an English mathematician and civil engineering professor and a Jamaican-born psychotherapist who is the descendent of African slaves.

"In each of the books there is a question of how past histories shape the present," said Harry Elam. "In Hunger, there is the matter of immigration experiences; My Own Country deals with sexuality and the personal trials of an AIDS doctor in the rural South; Outliers confronts how matters of historical, cultural and social circumstance shape talent and success. These are matters that we believe will be very relevant and of interest to incoming freshmen."

Noting that the books are all from very different genres, Elam added: "This too is part of our project, to see how distinct genres and different writers engage the matters of past's impact on the present and develop an argument or narrative."

Michele Elam added that they "both appreciated the relevancies and unorthodoxies within these texts."

"We also felt that each of the books challenges conventional thinking on a wide range of issues—medicine, education, immigration and so on—and, in particular, each explodes the usual canards about race, identity and politics. We also liked that these books engage 'coming of age' concerns in unexpected ways that we thought might be immediately relevant to incoming students."

What distinguishes Stanford's freshman summer-reading program from counterparts at many other universities is that three books, rather that one, are selected, and that Stanford brings the authors to campus for a moderated conversation. The program is now in its sixth year.

The Sept. 16 event is scheduled to begin at 7:15 p.m. in Memorial Auditorium. Due to the size of the freshman class, a simulcast will be held in a nearby auditorium for the general public.