Provost Wendell Pritchett, Vice Provost for Education Beth Winkelstein, the Council of Undergraduate Deans, and the Office of New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives are pleased to announce that Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey will be the 2018 Penn Reading Project, launching the 2018-2019 Academic Theme Year: The Year of Why.
Penn Reading Project
Now in its 28th year, the Penn Reading Project (PRP) was created as an introduction for incoming students to academic life at Penn. During New Student Orientation, the entire first-year class gathers in small groups with Penn faculty and senior academic administrators for a discussion of the same common text. Past Penn Reading Project books have included Langston Hughes’ The Big Sea, Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia—as well as Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane and Thomas Eakins’ painting The Gross Clinic.
All Penn faculty are encouraged to consider courses that incorporate TheBridge of San Luis Rey, the works of Thornton Wilder, and The Year of Why, whether by developing new courses or augmenting existing courses to be offered in the 2018-2019 academic year.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
Thornton Wilder today is chiefly remembered for two plays, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, which define a sense of community and responsibility. But a decade before, his 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, won a Pulitzer Prize and established Mr. Wilder as one of the most eloquent and philosophical of American writers. Though scarcely more than 100 pages, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is exceptionally rich in ideas and poetry.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the first novel chosen for Penn Reading Project in 15 years. It famously begins, “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” What follows in this fictional history is an examination of the lives of each of these travelers, initiated by a local monk, Brother Juniper, who seeks to understand why such a terrible thing could happen. (Although Mr. Wilder was born and bred in the United States, the South American setting of Bridge is something he took very seriously, and he writes vividly about Peru and its culture.) For Brother Juniper, this is, in part, a religious question—for Mr. Wilder and his readers, it may be more broadly philosophical.
From its first publication, The Bridge of San Luis Rey was recognized as a major work. Reviewing the book in 1927 in The New York Times, John Carter praised Mr. Wilder’s “exquisite style and colorful substance” and ultimately concluded that Bridge “is a metaphysical study of love: the love of mother for daughter, of brother for brother, of philanthropy, love of God, and love of art, in the light of a single catastrophe.”
Today, The Bridge of San Luis Rey remains a favorite work of critics, American literature scholars and other writers. In his preface for the current edition, contemporary novelist Russell Banks—a longtime admirer of Mr. Wilder’s work—calls Bridge “as close to perfect a moral fable as we are ever likely to get in American literature” and said, “It lives on because it celebrates our conflicted, contradictory, eternal human nature, our essential humanity.” Mr. Banks closes his commentary by quoting the last lines of the novel and reminding us that they were spoken by Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, at a memorial service for the victims of 9/11:
We ourselves shall be loved for a while and then forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
The Year of Why
The fundamental action of Bridge is Brother Juniper’s search to answer an unanswerable question—why does tragedy occur? For Mr. Wilder, the question has its foundation in belief and philosophy, but it can be equally pertinent in any number of other contexts. The search for “why?” is foundational in every aspect of education.
The Year of Why—as with all Academic Theme Years—invites examination and discussion across disciplines. Programming will be encouraged across all Penn’s schools and centers.
Recommendations for Future Penn Reading Project Books and Theme Years
Penn Reading Projects and Academic Theme Years are selected by the Office of the Provost and the Council of Undergraduate Deans from nominations by members of the Penn community. All current Penn students, faculty, and staff are invited to participate in the process at:www.prpsuggestions.org
The PRP text should be an outstanding work that will form the basis for a lively discussion. PRP texts can be fiction or nonfiction, historical or contemporary. They can also be films, musical compositions and other works of art. When you submit your suggested text, explain why you think it will make a good PRP—and also suggest a theme year topic that arises from it. These topics should be broad in scope (e.g. Year of Innovation, Year of Media, Year of Proof) and encourage interdisciplinary exploration across all Penn Schools and Centers. Submissions can be made at any time, and will be reviewed by a nomination committee as they are submitted.
For More Information
The Penn Reading Project 2018/The Bridge of San Luis Rey will take place in late August 2018 on a date to be arranged. Programming for the Year of Why can take place throughout the 2018-2019 academic year, with opportunities for grant funding opening online in June 2018.
For more information, please contact: David Fox, director of New Student Orientation & Academic Initiatives, firstname.lastname@example.org