For over 10 years, the University has asked its incoming first-year students to read a book and engage in a seminar discussion before formally beginning classes in the fall. This year, the First Readings committee has selected “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond as the text for the incoming Class of 2022.
The book selection was revealed through a Today@Brown email sent out March 16 as the culmination of a community-wide process that began in October. After receiving nominations from the Brown community at large, the First Readings committee met in December to narrow the list to around 15 books. Each committee member read four of those and then the final four books were selected: “Norwegian Wood,” “Ruined” and “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone,” along with “Evicted.” “Evicted” was chosen after committee members read the finalists and received feedback from the University community, keeping in mind the need “to change the type of reading each year,” said Maud Mandel, dean of the college and head of the committee.
“In making a selection, the committee looks for texts that offer an intellectually rich learning experience that encourages reflection and dialogue across Brown’s diverse incoming class,” said Aliosha Bielenberg ’20, a member of the First Readings committee.
“Evicted” has a very “difficult question at its core,” First Readings committee member and professor of Africana and American studies Matthew Guterl said. In his interpretation, the text asks “What happens to incredibly poor people who exist in a very uneven American economy, and who are consistently displaced and removed, and what do we learn about our society from the collateral industries that pop up?”
The book focuses on the town of Milwaukee, narrating the stories of families evicted from their homes. Yet, according to Mandel, the “powerful” aspect of the book is how the text allows readers to “look through the eyes” of not only those evicted, but also the landlords and the movers.
Guterl emphasized not only the “readability and teachability” of the book, but also its ability to “speak to meaningful and contemporary issues.”
“Evicted,” “in particular, speaks to an American context right now, where income inequality and poverty are really pressing issues that students are very engaged with,” Mandel said.
Bielenberg, an advocate of “engaged scholarship,” appreciates that the book, written by a sociologist, does a “really good job of balancing that kind of academic perspective with maintaining a narrative that makes it very readable.”
“The goal of the First Reading(s) program is to introduce incoming Brown students to their first intellectual conversation on campus” Mandel said. She hopes that this “collective” experience helps the students set off on a common starting point, while exciting them about the kind of learning that will ensue, she said.
Though Bielenberg recognizes that the book is quite limited geographically and demographically, he hopes that the conversation in the seminars extends beyond the book itself. He added that it is possible first-years will think about their personal experiences within the context of the text: “I hope that students think about what resonates with those experiences.”
Guterl also hopes that the conversation is not just constricted to the kinds of “sociological tools” the author used, the “structure” of the book or the author’s “argument.” Rather, he feels the questions posed and the social problems addressed “have no easy solution” and “require a degree of citizenship and leadership on the part of the students and faculty.”