Monday, April 26, 2010

Book: I Am Charlotte Simmons

I read Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities back in my undergraduate days. It was one of those reading experiences where you pick the book up and cannot put it back down. I finished the book, which is several hundred pages long, in just two days, and its portrait of mastery lost, of the crazed fall of a smart, middle-aged, white guy due to a combination of bad luck and excessive hubris has stayed with me ever since.

So it was with great anticipation that I finally got around to reading another great big think Tom Wolfe book, in this case I Am Charlotte Simmons, his tale of a bright but naive student, the once-in-three-or-four-decades academic star of Sparta, North Carolina, who gets a scholarship to attend "Dupont" (read "Duke") University.

I finally finished the book this morning after a couple of months of reading it in fits and starts. In the end, it is a book I can admire for the research - on college basketball, on undergraduate linguistics, and on the general workings of the modern college campus - that went into it, and for the intricate construction and resolution in the plot. But it never quite grabbed me the way that Bonfire of the Vanities did.

I think the reason it never pulled me all the way in is that the university environment that Wolfe lays out never quite rang true. I recognize that there are in fact students at Michigan (and Maryland, and Western Ontario - maybe not at Chicago!) like the ones he describes: obsessed with social status and appearances, sex and money, and completely disinterested in their studies. Probably there are more of these at a place like "Dupont", where money can make up for academics at admissions time. And I recognize that I see a very selected sample of students in the classes I teach. But the students I see, and particularly the ones I get to know, are not like the ones in the book at all. Shouldn't students like the ones I know at least make an appearance in the book? On a somewhat different dimension, my memory of undergraduate days was one of astounding anonymity, while much of the book revolves around a campus environment where everyone seems to know everyone else. To be sure, "Dupont" is smaller than the Big State U that I attended, but even there surely anonymity rules?

So, in the end, I must give this one only a very lukewarm recommendation. The bits about how the basketball team works are the best parts.

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