Last summer, if you were going to enroll in college at Washington State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, UNC-Chapel, Michigan State, and a dozen other schools, you had an assignment to complete. You had to read Just Mercy, attorney Bryan Stevenson’s tale of a life devoted to social justice and ending racism in the prison system. During Fall and Spring semesters you would be expected to complete course assignments and participate in events related to the memoir. Nothing else during freshman year would preoccupy so many students so often.
This is how the “One Book” programs works. For several years now, colleges have chosen a book for all entering students to read and discuss. The ostensible goal is to create a common experience for everyone and to introduce them to the kinds of things students will have to study during their undergraduate years.
It’s a good idea, but it poses an obvious question: which book?
In this case, why Just Mercy?
The work isn’t a classic—it came out just two years ago.
Nor does it have wide application across the curriculum. It won’t help a science major understand science or a humanities major learn about important artistic traditions. The knowledge that comes from it bears upon but a narrow slice of late-20th century US history.
It can’t be the prose itself. I just scanned the first pages and came across one flat phrase and cliché after another (“I was in over my head,” “as familiar to me as the back of my hand,” “. . . I couldn’t really put it together in a way that made a career path clear”).
It can’t be the personal relevance of the topic to the students, either. Several of the schools that assigned Just Mercy are selective institutions. The typical attendee there is a high-performing middle-class kid who’s never gotten into real trouble. Just Mercy goes straight to death row.
So why is it the most popular selection in America for two years running?
We’ll answer that question next week on Tuesday evening, when First Things will host the launch of a report on last year’s One Book selections by the National Association of Scholars. Here is a link to the event.
We hope to see you there.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.