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‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ chosen as First Readings text

Novel selected from among 70 nominations, examines cultural stereotyping, engages with setting

Chosen for its “brilliant and timely” content and lyrical writing, “The Tsar of Love and Techno” by Anthony Marra will be the summer reading for the incoming class of 2021 as part of the University’s First Readings program, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel.

The First Readings committee — composed of Mandel, Dean of the College for Fellowships Linda Dunleavy, four professors across different disciplines and two undergraduates — began their search in the fall by soliciting recommendations from the community, Mandel said.

The collaboration among faculty members is an example of “a university at its best,” Mandel said. Books across different genres — from science to history to literary to graphic novels ­— were all considered, as well as other media such as movies, she added.

This year, the committee received around 70 nominations, said Aliosha Bielenberg ’20, an undergraduate representative for the committee. To narrow down the list, the committee broadly evaluated each book by reading published reviews as well as descriptions provided by those who submitted recommendations.

After narrowing down options to 16 books, each member of the committee read four books over winter break, Dunleavy said. From there, the committee selected the top five books, which every committee member read. These five titles were also announced in a community-wide email to allow community members to read the books and offer their own opinions. Around 130 community responses were received this year, Bielenberg said.

The entire selection process “engages the Brown community at large to think about what makes an intellectual and meaningful text,” Mandel said.

The committee considered a number of factors in each stage of choosing a text. First, the initial “gut feeling of whether it was an engaging read” was important, as well as finding an appropriate length that would allow students to engage with the text without feeling intimidated by it, Bielenberg said.

In addition, the committee had to take into account that First Readings requires a short essay and discussion, Bielenberg said. Mandel added that the committee searched for a book that would allow first-year students to “reflect on themselves and society in some broad context.”

“The Tsar of Love and Techno” — set in the Soviet Union in the 1930s — includes stimulating themes that allow students to examine the effects of “reducing a multifaceted individual or culture into some form of a stereotype,” Bielenberg said.

Dunleavy added that the book served as an important invitation to engage with a setting — Russia, under Stalin’s power — that may be foreign to some students.

“It’s important to recognize that even if characters and names are from long ago, you can draw lessons from them, and they shouldn’t be viewed as monolithic,” Bielenberg said.

“This book wasn’t initially one that people thought was going to be selected, but everyone ended up finding it interesting and provocative,” Dunleavy said. “It was a bit of a sleeper choice that really rose to the top.”

She added she hopes the book will have a similarly meaningful impact upon members of the incoming class of 2021 and other readers.

“It’s an absolutely stunning book,” Bielenberg said. “If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be: Just read it.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article referenced Aliosha Bielenberg ’20 as a staff columnist for The Herald. In fact, he was an op-ed contributor. The Herald regrets the error.


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