Duke University responds to summer reading controversy

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Monday, August 24, 2015
Summer reading book sparks debate at Duke
Some students are choosing not to read the graphic novel "Fun Home" because of its sexual themes and images.

DURHAM (WTVD) -- Some members of the Class of 2019 at Duke University chose not to read the recommended summer book "Fun Home."

It's a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel that shows her relationship with her father and her issues with sexual identity.

The book's publisher describes the graphic novel as: "A fresh and brilliantly told memoir from a cult favorite comic artist, marked by gothic twists, a family funeral home, sexual angst, and great books. This breakout book by Alison Bechdel is a darkly funny family tale, pitch-perfectly illustrated with Bechdel's sweetly gothic drawings. Like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, it's a story exhilaratingly suited to graphic memoir form."

The Duke Chronicle reported that Freshman Brian Grasso chose not to read it. He explained in part on the Class of 2019 Facebook page, "because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality."

This sparked a discussion between students.

Several freshman decided not to read "Fun Home" because its sexual images conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs.

Some said that the sexual interactions were inappropriate and they could not bring themselves to view the nude images.

Others defended the novel, saying that it allowed students to open their minds to a new perspective and expose them to something unfamiliar.

One of the selection committee members said they support the book and knew that it would be a controversial choice.

They said the choice reflects Duke not being a place that shies away from issues of sexuality.

Duke did not require students to read the book. Duke's Vice President for Public Affairs Michael Schoenfeld issued a statement on the controversy Monday:

Like many universities and community, Duke has had a summer reading for many years to give incoming students a shared intellectual experience with other members of the class (you can see the most recent selections at https://studentaffairs.duke.edu/new-students/common-experience).

The reading is selected by a committee of students, and staff, who then solicit feedback from other members of the Duke community. Fun Home was ultimately chosen because it is a unique and moving book that transcends genres and explores issues that students are likely to confront. It is also one of the most celebrated graphic novels of its generation, and the theatrical adaption won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and four others, in 2015. As we have every year, we were fortunate to have the author join us on campus for a lively discussion of the book during orientation week.

The summer reading is entirely voluntary - it is not a requirement, nor is there a grade or record of any student's participation. With a class of 1,750 new students from around the world, it would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone's way of thinking. We understand and respect that, but also hope that students will begin their time at Duke with open minds and a willingness to explore new ideas, whether they agree with them or not.

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