Summer Reading

August 1, 2008

Dave Eggers' What is the What

The Class of 2012 already has its first homework assignment: to read Dave Eggers' What is the What, a novel about a group of Sudanese refugees who struggled to survive during Sudan's civil war.

Now in its seventh year, Duke's summer reading assignment for freshmen is designed to orient students to the life of a college community by stimulating debate and introspection, says Lee Willard, associate dean in the office of undergraduate education and a member of the committee that considered more than eighty nominations.

Students will receive a copy of the book over the summer and are expected to finish it before August orientation. At that time, they will participate in small group discussions led by older students.

What is the What tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who was separated from his family and ultimately relocated as a young adult to the United States.

"The issues of Sudan, genocide, identity, and the plight of refugees are important issues of our time," Willard says. "This book also builds upon Duke's tradition of civic engagement, as well as addresses the incredible student interest in Africa."

Jin-Soo Huh, a rising senior from California and a member of the selection committee, says he expects that students will like the book as much as he did, even though the subject matter is not light.

"It's about tragedy, but it's also about hope and Deng's amazingly resilient spirit," Huh says. "I never could imagine living through it, but it really humanized the issue. It's told in such a beautiful way."

The selection committee narrowed the choices to five finalists, and then used results and comments from an online survey of students and faculty and staff members to guide its final decision. The other finalists were Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, and Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.