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K-State Today

June 29, 2011

Literature a compelling medium for social change, say leaders of reading program for incoming freshmen

Submitted by Julie Fosberg

If an idea that is ignited in just one person can spark change, imagine the shift in thinking that could occur when thousands of individuals begin to think along that same, imaginative line.

That may be a byproduct of the K-State Book Network at Kansas State University. The network provides incoming freshmen with a copy of the same book, with the book selection changing each year. Current students, faculty and staff are also able to get their hands on a copy of the book, allowing the entire campus to participate in the program and engage in through-provoking conversations.

This summer students are receiving "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers at their campus orientation. "Zeitoun" follows the nonfiction tale of a Syrian-American contractor who had the means to leave New Orleans when warnings of Hurricane Katrina began pouring in, but elected to stay. He doled out supplies to victims and saved pets but ran into trouble of his own along the way.

"On the news we saw a lot of stories about experiences in New Orleans before and during the hurricane. This book shares a point of view people may not have seen on TV or read about in the news," said Tara Coleman, Web services librarian for K-State Libraries and co-chair of the book network committee. "Those stories weren't inaccurate; this is just a different point of view."

While the purpose of the book network may be to offer students who are new to the campus a topic to bond over and analyze with their peers and community members, it may also open the door for social change through examining one's own life choices.

"All books have an agenda: They're a story about one person's experience," said Coleman. "The character in the book had the means to leave, but chose not to. It's the story of what can happen when you choose to stay --the good and bad."

Students can love the book or hate it, she said, but she urges them to engage in civil discourse either way and to ask themselves what they would do. Often Coleman asks students if she would be obligated to return a pet that she had rescued in the disaster to its previous owner who had abandoned it or if it was hers to keep.

"A lot of these students have not been independent before and others may still be making their choices for them," Coleman said. "It's about saying, 'I'm the adult, what am I going to do for myself? What am I going to do for others?' Social change can be small, it can be one decision."

Karin Westman, head of the department of English and member of the book network committee, said the social change that may evolve from reading "Zeitoun" is a heightened awareness of the rights and privileges of being a part of the United States and how some citizens are not always treated fairly and given these rights.

Additionally, readers may gain an awareness of how individuals respond in times of crisis and have an impulse to help others, Westman said. This type of change may flow naturally from literature -- which whether fiction or nonfiction, she said -- uses events from real life to shape the narrative and the people involved.

"Authors advocate for a particular position or point of view and will use that position to shape the resulting narrative," Westman said. "We see how books can have an effect on readers, as readers connect their reading experience of the book to the world around them."

Literature provides a way to imagine the story unfolding on the pages of the book, Westman said, making the simple act of reading a book an interactive experience that expects readers to collaborate with the author in building the story.

This experience makes literature a compelling medium for social change, said Coleman, as well as a way to encourage the reader into acting on any emotions stirred up from the literature itself.

"On paper you feel things and see them through your own lens," Coleman said. "On film, you're looking at things through the eyes of the director and the characters have faces that you cannot change. In a book, the characters can be whatever you imagine them to be."

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