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“I feel my typewriters, my table, my chair to have that assurance of a solid world, where things take up space, where there is not the endless emptiness of insubstantial thought that leads to nowhere but itself.” – page 207

The Reading Project

Brown photoIn the eleventh year of Cornell’s New Student Reading Project, this year’s incoming undergraduate class and the Cornell community will read E. L. Doctorow’s most recent novel, Homer and Langley, published in 2009. Homer and Langley provides a fictionalized redaction of the lives of the renowned Collyer brothers, whose story became a New York urban legend which, in Doctorow’s words, “seemed . . . a Satanic mockery of what we all stand for.” After their parents’ death in the flu pandemic of 1918, within the family mansion on Fifth Avenue Homer and Langley compile a world of their own, apart from but intimately and paradoxically connected with the transformative events of twentieth-century American history.

E. L. Doctorow is a winner of the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howell Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Humanities Medal. He is one of the most visible and influential American novelists of the last forty years, and perhaps the leading figure, in the U.S. and internationally, in the development of the post-modernist historical novel. Doctorow’s books offer lively and unconventional accounts of real historical figures engaged in highly charged events whose ultimate meaning—if indeed they have an ultimate meaning—remains tantalizingly elusive. His plots portray events and topics from the arts and politics, science and technology, business and industry, and war and revolution, and his characters come from all walks of life, from a range of social classes and races, and from notoriety and obscurity. His panoramic perspective and engaging story lines might recall the great novelists of nineteenth-century Europe, but without their conviction that the sequence of events in history represents a coherent and meaningful trajectory. For this reason Doctorow has been central to efforts by scholars, critics, and theorists, both in the U S and abroad, to comprehend the most recent, experimental developments in fictional form and their relevance to our understanding of the contemporary world.

Homer and Langley generates a range of engaging topics for discussion and exploration, including the major events of twentieth-century U.S. history from prohibition to flower children, the modern media phenomenon of “reality,” the significance of community, the creation of “trash,” and the claims of family, as well as sustainability, news, rebellion, the psychology of hoarding, and autarky.

About 50 fiction titles — recommended by faculty, staff and several student groups, including Meinig Scholars, resident advisers and Orientation leaders — were considered for the 2011 project. Other books shortlisted for this year were “Timbuktu” by Paul Auster; Fatelessness” by
Imre Kertesz; and “The Fall of Troy” by Peter Ackroyd.

On August 21 during freshman orientation, students will attend one of six “Homer Lectures” given by faculty from all over campus. Speakers include Ileen Devault, Professor of Labor Relations, Law and History in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations; Laura Harrington from the Department of Entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Matthew Miller, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, from the College of Engineering; Richard Polenberg, Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences; Steven Pond, Professor of Music, in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Michael Shapiro, Professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Late Monday afternoon, approximately 250 groups of about 15 first year students discuss the text in classrooms around campus.

The New Student Reading Project provides an important rite of passage for incoming students and a shared focus for the renewal of each academic year. During the academic year, lectures, panel discussions, films and other events will relate to the reading project to encourage discussion of the issues raised by Homer and Langley. Welcome to the discussion.

Laura Brown, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education