Reflections on the Common Read

Summer is coming to a close. Target is filled with bedding, shelving, and everything else incoming students will need to make their dorm rooms theirs. The weather is turning cooler at night, and my calendar is filled with meetings to ready our library for incoming students. If you’ve been following Mount Holyoke College social media outlets, you’ve seen our hashtags: #jorgeknows and #marysbag. I’ll have more to say on those in a few weeks as we roll out our programming. For now, I want to comment on one of my favorite start-of-term activities for incoming students: the common read.

Some might say: the common read, who cares? Well, I believe the common read is an essential component of orientation, especially at selective liberal arts college like Mount Holyoke and my alma mater, Smith College. In many cases, the book is one of the only commonalities students may share; no matter if they arrived to campus from New Jersey or Beijing, they read the same book. If nothing else, newly arrived students can reliably make chit chat about the book, whether they enjoyed it, whether it was too long, whether it was enthralling or pedantic. It is an immediate and common bond.

During my last semester at Hampshire College, I served on the college-wide common read committee, a group tasked with selecting next year’s book for incoming students to read. I knew going into the experience that I had warm, pleasant feelings about common read programs; I had such fond memories of my own experiences reading My Year of Meats / Ruth Ozeki before my first year at Smith in 2000. I loved reading the book that summer between my cashier shifts at Blockbuster Video. Reading the book as I readied myself to leave home help ease my anxieties about fitting into a new community; was I academically prepared enough? Would I have anything worthwhile to say? Would the students of Smith realize that I was an inferior interloper (IMPOSTOR SYNDROME!)? The book became my outlet. I think it read it twice that summer.

When I arrived on campus, the freedom to be out of the closet, to no longer be the person that hid underneath heaps of hair and quiet dourness in high school, was overwhelming. I was not accustomed to being honest about who I was or how I really felt. I almost did not know what to say or where to start, so I started with the common read. It was a low threshold to talk about a book most everyone read. It helped eased my transition. Finally, as orientation week came to a close, Ruth Ozeki herself come to John M. Greene Hall to give a talk about her book. It was a wonderful talk; Ozeki touched on her own experiences at Smith, and gave us first years a spirited go get ’em! Ruth Ozeki’s talk was the first time I ever heard an author speak about his or her work publicly; a direct connection between a published work and the person who wrote it. It was powerful and inspiring.

Afterwards, first year students were invited to follow Ozeki to the Alumnae House to get copies of her book signed. Many of us went; I remember waiting in a long line. Most of my cohort enjoyed the talk and we chatted amongst ourselves as we waited to meet the author herself. I made some friends, felt a sense of school community I had never felt before, and finally, when my turn came, I met Ozeki. She was friendly and warm and took my book, asked my name, and wrote an inscription on the cover page: “For Caroline-Have a great time at Smith! Ruth L. Ozeki.” This interaction gave me inspiration to try my best, to take big risks, and learn as much as I could at Smith. My dog eared copy of My Year of Meats moved with me to every room I lived in at Smith, every apartment I inhabited in Florence, New Haven, Somerville, and Northampton. It psyched me up; I can do this.

Of course, Smith was a challenge; my classes, classmates, and experiences in athletics, music, and college radio pushed me in all the right ways, but my years at Smith were not without their dark days. During those periods when I questioned everything, my direction, my intelligence, my ability on the crew team to pass a 2K test, or land gainful employment after graduation, I turned to My Year of Meats as a reminder of what brought me to the College. I thought about the opportunity to learn, grow, and evolve as a critical thinker, but also to have a great time, watch the sun rise on the Connecticut River, to find love, and come to terms with myself.

Caroline Pinto entered Smith College in 2000, but Caro Pinto graduated in 2004. Did the common read ensure my success? No, but it gave me inspiration and a sense of belonging at a moment when everything felt up for grabs. As the chips fell during my college career, the book remained on my shelf and in my heart. I hope this year’s Mount Holyoke students have the same positive experience with their common read.