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One Book to Bind Them

The Class of ’12 comes from all over the country and even the world, but one thing most of the freshmen have in common is The Devil’s Highway. That’s the haunting book about illegal immigrants lost in the Arizona desert that was read by all freshmen enrolled in the College Writing Program or University Honors Program, and whose author, Luis Alberto Urrea, came to AU as part of convocation.

This is the 11th year that the Department of Literature and the College Writing Program selected a book for most incoming students to read. The author traditionally speaks at the Writers as Witness Colloquium on Convocation day, and answers questions from students.

So when the new freshmen walk into their first college writing class, they’ll share not only a knowledge of a beautifully written book, but a firsthand experience with the author. Around 75 sections will be discussing the book and its author’s ideas during the first week of class, a focused university-wide discussion that helps to make the initial days at AU a distinctive freshman experience.

While it’s not unusual for universities across the country to ask incoming students to read a book, the readings are seldom integrated into classes, says John Hyman, director of the College Writing Program. At AU, though, the summer reading and the author’s talk serves as a key jumping-off point for class discussions that segue into the craft of writing.

“I think it’s important to walk into class and instead of instantly leaping to the administrative details of the first day, you can say, ‘What did you think of this book? Of this author? What surprised you in his answers? What did you want him to talk about that he didn’t talk about?’” Hyman says. “The conversation begins, if not seamlessly, at least less abruptly.”

The summer readings chosen to start those conversations aren’t casual reading for the beach, but they’re also engaging nonfiction literature that are often best-sellers, as in the case of The Devil’s Highway.

“We’re looking for a book that, first of all, is like the kind of writing we want our students to be doing, which is to say broadly, nonfiction expository prose. But beyond that, we want a book that’s a model of beautiful writing,” says Hyman.

University Honor’s students were also invited to have breakfast with the author just before the convocation. Engaging with the author, whether over breakfast or at the question-and-answer session, is a way for students to think about the creative process and start to see themselves as writers, Hyman says.

The Devil’s Highway was a Pulitzer finalist and won the 2004 Lannan Literary Award.

Flip the book to any page, Hyman says, “and every time, the passage is special. It’s that beautiful in terms of writing.”

It traces the journey of two dozen Mexican men who entered the United States in 2001 through the Sonoran desert, a “110 degree nightmare” where sun and thirst kill many people every year, and where half of the group whose steps the author retraces would end up dying.

Books chosen for summer readings are always ones that ask students to think about broad policy implications. “We want the students, right from the beginning, to think of something larger than just Section 007 of this class,” Hyman says.

They’re also books whose authors have immersed themselves in a culture or an issue, he says, “and tried to see that from the inside, so our assumptions about that issue can be tested.”