A Not So Common Read

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By: Emma King –

Renowned author Sherman Alexie will be joining the RMC community at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 23, in the Fortin Education Center to share social perspectives and put a capstone on the 2014 Common Read Program.

The Common Read is all about “a shared reading experience,” according to the Rocky website. “We seek to develop community, encourage intellectual engagement, and promote connections among disciplines.”

Though we read for a common purpose, Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is anything but common. Winner of dozens of awards and accolades, Absolutely True Diary is “a coming-of-age story so well observed that its very rootedness in one specific culture is also what lends it universality,” Publishers Weekly noted.

Though generally literature is relegated to English classes, Absolutely True Diary has also lived up to that universality as it has found a place in the music, political science and even the geology departments. The music department’s recital attendance class was given an assignment to create a playlist for the novel, as well as to answer select questions that might relate the work to music as a whole. There is relevance to the science program, where some are doing research on substance abuse on the Crow reservation. Even the art department may find a commonality in the renderings of artist Ellen Forney, who drew the protagonist’s cartoons in the novel.

The Common Read committee, which consisted of professors and students, had fourteen books to choose from, some of which were Larry Watson’s 1948, Bill Plotkin’s Soulcraft, and Philip Levine’s What Work Is. So why choose Absolutely True Diary? To begin with, the chosen novel was unanimously supported by the entire committee because of its popularity, the controversy surrounding it, and its relevance. What clinched the deal, however, was the author’s participation in the Read.

Novelist, short story writer, poet, and performer, Sherman Alexie has won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, a PEN/Hemingway Citation for Best First Fiction, and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. “Don’t live up to your stereotypes,” he says, and, having lived beyond the ethnic, cultural, and professional expectations that are often stereotyped of Indians, he is more than just talk.

“We were, dare I say, ecstatic, and humbled,” Steve Germic, associate professor of English and associate academic vice president, said of Alexie’s agreement to speak at Rocky. His keynote address is “critical to what we are trying to do.

“We want to create an experience that will reinforce community overall. We engage in ideas together, debate and discuss. That helps us… It is central to the college experience to read controversial books, to discuss them and debate them in a civil atmosphere, and to learn from one another. That’s what we want.”

For those who might still think that a fourteen-year-old Indian boy with a stutter and a penchant for drawing silly cartoons has nothing to do with the population of a liberal arts university, Germic had this to say:

“The audience for any book isn’t necessarily limited by the age of the protagonist. Certainly [Junior’s] experiences speak to those who are teenagers… [but] the experiences that he goes through speak to people of any age. To watch him grow and suffer…it’s dark. It’s bitter. It’s about the trials and tribulations of growing up.

“It’s true that [last year’s Common Read] Salvage the Bones was considered by the publisher for marketing as a young adult book. It is also a coming-of-age story, but because of the sexual content, it was not…but it could have been. Even Romeo and Juliet is a kind of coming-of-age book… its themes appeal to everyone.”

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