Book Review: The Brown Reader: 50 Writers Remember College Hill, ed. Judy Sternlight

Some readers may already know that I am a proud Brunonian. I went to Brown University for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, and enjoyed my time there very much. (“So nice I went there twice!”) I dabbled in subjects I had never tried before, read lots of challenging books, made some lifelong friends, met the boyfriend I am still dating, wrote for the Brown Daily Herald, and just generally had all sorts of experiences that contributed to making me the person I am today!

For an added note of nostalgia, just a few weekends ago was Brown’s commencement ceremony and reunion, as well as the Campus Dance, a really pleasant tradition where alumni return to campus to enjoy bands playing out under the stars on the Main Green.

That’s why when I saw The Brown Reader: 50 Writers Remember College Hill up on Netgalley, in celebration of Brown University’s 250th anniversary, I knew I had to have it. Edited by Judy Sternlight, a 1982 Brown grad and long-time editor, the collection includes essays by such big-name Brown grads as Jeffrey Eugenides, Edwidge Danticat, Marilynne Robinson, and many more. It seems that Sternlight reached out to other Brown alumni in publishing to commission this impressive anthology; lucky for her, Brown has produced many writing-inclined folks!

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As with almost any anthology, the stories were uneven and differed widely in tone, making it challenging to review. Some, like Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Sun Under Cloud Cover,” were pointed and hilarious as they poked fun not just at Brown but at the other Ivy League schools. Others were serious reflections on what the writer gained and lost at Brown, including appreciations for new academic or artistic pursuits, like theater or medicine.

Some of the pieces I liked in particular were Lois Lowry’s remembrance of coming to Brown and becoming a writer, with one of her first short stories having to due with three men on a train, and Marilynne Robinson’s discussion of writing. Two of the stories that have stayed with me the longest–as I look over the table of contents to better write this review–are two tales of sacrifice undertaken for the opportunities that Brown can provide. Edwidge Danticat’s “My Honorary Degree and the Factory Forewoman” and Robin Green’s “Townie” provide two of the more unique voices of this collection. Danticat writes of her mother’s pride in her academic accomplishments, even as they take Danticat to places her mother has never had the opportunity herself to go; Green provides the local Rhode Islander perspective to the sometimes-snooty, ever-present shadow of Brown over Providence, which she only attends herself after working for a while right out of high school.

The book’s main weaknesses is actually acknowledged in Sternlight’s introduction. Basically all of the writers focused on the humanities while at Brown, so while we are well-versed in the English and creative writing and theater departments by the time of the last page, we aren’t nearly as familiar with any of the hard or social science departments. (Seriously, were there no biology or computer science concentrators who would have been interested in contributing?) It would have felt like a more rounded anthology had some other academic experiences been shared. Each writer’s experience has merit, of course, but after reading several short pieces on the writing program by writing program concentrators, it can feel a bit like we’re entering rerun season.

While I don’t know that it would be of interest to non-Brown grads, I was impressed by the quality of the writing and the range of voices in this collection. I heartily recommend it to Brown students and especially to Brown alumni, who will appreciate the blend of nostalgia for Brown (and realism about their experiences there!) provided by the authors.

I received The Brown Reader free for review from publisher Simon & Schuster through Netgalley. The Brown Reader is now available for purchase.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “When I came to Brown, what the New Curriculum said to me was, ‘Hey, you’re an adult now. You’re in charge of your own education. We’re not going to tell you what to do.’ That resonated with me.”

 

 

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