Freshman Kaylie Crawford never finished “Walden” in high school, but after reading the memoir in its entirety as part of Ithaca College’s First Year Reading Initiative, she came away with a more complete perspective of the book’s message and meaning.
“The first time I read ‘Walden,’ I only read select passages,” she said. “[This time] I got a more holistic view of it.”
According to an Ithacan tally, about 1,000 freshmen, like Crawford, gathered in Ben Light Gymnasium on Tuesday to participate in a class-wide discussion of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” Last semester, the classic memoir was chosen as the First Year Reading Initiative for the class of 2014.
The book chronicles the two years Thoreau spent in a log cabin in rural Massachusetts, living a self-sustainable and secluded life. Thoreau sought to isolate himself from society so he could step back and gain a more objective perspective on society.
Last year, an 11-member committee, chaired by Associate Provost Bashar Hanna, narrowed down a list of possible books before submitting a list of recommendations to President Tom Rochon. Rochon made the final decision in the spring.
This year, discussion groups were organized by dorm, as opposed to by seminar class as they were in previous years.
Jonathan Ablard, associate professor of history, said this choice better served to create a sense of community among freshmen who live together.
“You get students [to have] a first intellectual discussion with each other,” Ablard said. “Ideally it is something that will happen in the dorms, to some degree.”
English professor Kevin Murphy lectured on the book to the audience before students were split into small groups for discussions led by faculty members. Murphy focused on Thoreau’s life story as a means to explain the message of the book.
After listening to Murphy’s lecture and participating in the group discussion, Crawford said she had a better understanding of the book than she did in high school.
“Before, I got [the idea that] technology is really getting out of hand,” she said. “Here I got more of [the idea that] there needs to be a balance in your life.”
Janice Monroe, professor of recreation and leisure studies, had students in her discussion group sit on their own with an index card for 10 minutes drawing symbols depicting what they saw, heard or felt around them as a way to internalize the experiences Thoreau had during his two years in the woods.
“The whole focus of Thoreau is to revisit who you are as an individual and it’s very difficult in our fast-paced society,” she said. “The activity forces you to be within yourself and think about what is going on around you. It’s a mini-Thoreau experience.”
But not all students found the book as enriching. Freshman Mark Melchior said Thoreau’s writing was boring to him.
“I didn’t find it that interesting,” he said. “I found his observations were good, but the actual writing didn’t intrigue me.”
“Walden” was a significant departure from previous First Year Reading Initiative books, since it was published in 1854. Other selections, like Barack Obama’s memoir “Dreams From My Father” that was chosen in 2009 and “Persepolis,” a graphic novel about the Iranian Revolution that was chosen the year before, were both written in the past decade.
Ablard, who has led First Year Reading Initiative discussion groups for the past two years, said he was pleased with the choice of “Walden.”
“‘Walden is an interesting [and] engaging book,” he said. “My sense is that the students got a lot out of reading it or even reading some of it. This book sets a very good tone for where we want students to be headed during their four years at Ithaca.”