Alums’ borderless book community

Despite its reputation as a tech-oriented campus filled with students who would rather program computers than study the arts, Stanford has found ways to incorporate the humanities into its wider vision of a well-rounded education. From the Three Books program to required courses in the Introduction to the Humanities and the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, literature is integral to the undergraduate experience. And for some, participation in the humanities at Stanford doesn’t have to end after graduation.

The Stanford Book Salon provides Stanford faculty, staff, alums and students alike with the opportunity to engage in an online discussion about literature. (SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

The Stanford Book Salon is an online community composed of alumni, families and other Stanford community members who come together to read and discuss a different book each month.

The Salon began in 2002 under the direction of the late Diane Middlebrook, a poet and former feminist studies professor at Stanford. In the program’s early days, she hosted every forum herself. But with its rapid growth in popularity, the program soon expanded to bring in faculty hosts to choose books that are close to their hearts.

The current Salon runs seven months per year, hosting discussions in an online forum about that month’s literature of choice. The book is announced on the first day of each month, accompanied by an audio interview with the host, typically a Stanford professor, who introduces the book and highlights key themes and passages.

The online discussion starts with responses to this interview and journeys through sets of questions posed by the faculty host at intervals throughout the month. Occasionally, the Salon also organizes a live event, such as the on-campus discussion session held recently with medicine professor Abraham Verghese, September’s host for his own novel, “Cutting For Stone.”

“We’re trying to give [alumni] that classroom experience they had back at Stanford,” said May-Ling Gonzales, senior manager of alumni education and coordinator for the Book Salon.

Stanford alums have been highly receptive to the program, and the Salon has grown to include over 4,000 subscribers, 1,300 of whom have contributed to the daily discussion posts. Still, the Salon allows for varying levels of commitment for those alumni whose other obligations prevent them from fully engaging with the group. Some members participate actively in discussions, others just glance over the monthly updates and a few even use the recommendations for future reading lists.

“Wherever, however they want to participate, we’ll meet them there,” Gonzales said.

According to Gonzales, the Salon’s strength lies in its ability to bridge the gap between alumni and current faculty by allowing them to continue the intellectual experience of reading together in a space that promotes inquiry.

“If you can’t [meet] in person, then doing it online can be just as good,” said assistant professor of French and Italian Marisa Galvez Ph.D. ’07, who hosted the April 2007 Salon discussion.

Faculty hosts said they value their involvement with the Salon for different reasons.

Eavan Boland, director of the Stanford Creative Writing Department, chose a book for next month that she considers a quiet classic –“Testament of Youth,” written by Vera Brittain.

“You read a good book, and the first thing you do is you want to say to somebody: ‘you have to read this,’” Boland said. “This gives me the opportunity to say that to a lot of people.”

Galvez, on the other hand, picked a book that she teaches with regularly, Chretien de Troyes’ “Arthurian Romances.” She appreciated how the challenge of addressing a wider audience made her rethink how she approached the ideas presented in the text.

Dean of Religious Life Scotty McLennan will host a discussion for the second time this January. While he said he looks to emphasize the moral and spiritual questions that come out of his selection by encouraging readers to evaluate these topics in their own lives, his main hope for participants is that they will enjoy reading the book “Jasmine,” a novel by Bharati Mukherjee.

“It’s always a risk in the academic world [when] we analyze books in such depth that sometimes people lose the ability to just read for fun,” McLennan said.

Boland, Galvez and McLennan selected books highlighting themes that they viewed as misunderstood or misrepresented in some way. They hope that engaging in discussion about these books will prompt participants to rethink their assumptions about such ideas as courtly love, self theories, moral responsibility and other topics addressed in the novels.

While the Salon is advertised primarily for alumni, these discussions are not limited to Stanford graduates. Current students can also participate in the Salon by signing up through the alumni website.

For some, engagement with the Stanford humanities is only a book — and a click — away.

About Amrita Rao