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September 4, 2008

Three Books program explores youth, choice, self-identity

Three very different explorations of self-identity were mailed to incoming Stanford students several weeks ago as part of this year's "Three Books" program. The authors will appear together Sept. 17 on a panel during New Student Orientation.

This year's books—Lynda Barry's One! Hundred! Demons!, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and ZZ Packer's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere—were picked by Professor Andrea Lunsford, director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, and Julie Lythcott-Haims, dean of freshmen.

"They are all somewhat coming-of-age stories," Lunsford said. "But I looked at what would appeal and speak to our incoming class, and I really liked them." Lunsford has written or co-authored 16 books, including such writing handbooks as The Everyday Writer, Everything's an Argument and The St. Martin's Handbook.

Some students may have been surprised to find a comic book in their stack of required readings. One! Hundred! Demons!, categorized as a graphic novel, is actually a series of 17 cartoons, which cartoonist, novelist and playwright Barry calls "autobifictionalography." Based on an Asian painting exercise, the cartoon narrative revisits several "demons"—events, beliefs, objects—that have haunted Barry's life, revisiting vignettes of self-consciousness, hate and lost innocence.

"Graphic novels are becoming increasingly popular, and I've always been a great fan of Lynda Barry," Lunsford said.

According to Time, "Barry's book creates a poignant mix of what makes our lives both comical and sad."

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which earned a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Junot Diaz, is a novel about a disastrously overweight, second-generation Dominican "ghetto nerd" laboring under a family curse. Chronicling Oscar's life through family history and thwarted dreams, Diaz explores the American and immigrant experience.

The New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote that Diaz's novel has a "wild, capacious spirit, making it feel much larger than it is." Entertainment Weekly called the story "a joy to read, and every bit as exhilarating to reread."

Packer's debut collection of eight stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulker award. It mostly focuses on the lives and choices of black teenage girls. According to the Los Angeles Times, the book is "about survival: imagining yourself elsewhere is one trick for living black in a white world. Because these stories by ZZ Packer are mostly about young people struggling to grow up, they make for raw reading. Sometimes you wish they'd go in a different direction. Decisions feel precarious, as if one bad move could ruin a life. As if every little thing were a neon sign blinking, 'Go this way. Do this. No, no not that!'"

ZZ Packer, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford, has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writer's Award and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award.

Although teenagers are typically immersed in a laptop culture, Lunsford is doing her best to make sure students don't forget book culture. "We're so used to reading on screen, sometimes we forget how nice it can be to pick up a good book and hold it in our lap," she said.

A conversation with the authors, moderated by Lunsford, is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 17, in Memorial Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public, but, due to the large size of the freshman class, event-goers who are not incoming Stanford students will have to watch the discussion via simulcast at Piggott Theater, which is next to Memorial Auditorium.

Gabrielle Hadley is a writing intern at the Stanford News Service.

Editor Note:

Journalists interested in attending the event should contact Jeanette Miller at (650) 724-3163 or



Cynthia Haven, News Service: (650) 724-6184,

Jeanette Miller, Freshman Dean's Office: (650) 724-3163,


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