Every seat in the majestic Irvine Auditorium was filled as the freshmen class came together to discuss their initial assignment: the book “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” setting the stage for their first year at University of Pennsylvania.
The Penn Reading Project, in its 28th year, is designed to bring the freshmen together around one intellectual project by reading the same text, based on a theme. The Class of 2022 selection, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, was the first novel chosen in 15 years.
The corresponding theme is the “Year of Why?” that will thread throughout the academic year for all of Penn’s 12 schools. The year will also include several theme-related events, many of which are suggested and planned by students.
Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy in the School of Arts and Sciences, led the two hour-plus morning sessions during orientation for the more than 2,500 freshmen. “I hope you remember this as a really interesting beginning at Penn,” he said.
“I want to encourage you on behalf of all of us to really seek us out,” Weisberg said, noting that faculty have office hours. “You can just come and talk about what an intellectual life can mean.”
“This year will open up a lot of possibilities,” Fox told the students. “I can’t think of a bigger question than ‘Why?’”
The reading project also involves more than 100 Penn faculty and senior academic staff from across the University, who led additional small-group discussions with about 20 students each.
“Sitting down in a room and talking together about what you think and feel should be a part of your first days here,” said Ann Kuttner, history of art professor. “I totally believe in it.”
Cecelia Grasseschi, a freshman from Great Falls, Mont., is enrolled in Wharton and the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a really good way to get discussion going for college,” she said. “It’s not a class, but it’s like the first lecture listening to professors and teachers talk.”
Anyone in the Penn community can suggest themes and books to be considered for the Penn Reading Project, which is sponsored by the Office of the Provost. The titles have varied over the years, with choices usually non-fiction, although one the film “Citizen Kane” was chosen, and another year the painting “The Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakins.
The selection, chosen by committee, is announced in the spring so incoming freshman can read the book before orientation, said Fox, who has been project director for the past 15 years.
This year’s book, published in 1927, used to be a standard on high school reading lists, but is not as well-known today. The author is better-known for his plays, in particular “Our Town,” which many students are familiar with because it is a favorite choice for high school drama performances.
“It’s a book that is reflecting on some of these great questions: how we ought to live, what’s important in our lives, what are good ways to live, what relationships are meaningful,” Weisberg said. “Despite the dramatic death in the book, it is ultimately a book about how to live.”
The novel starts with a sentence, famous in literature, describing a climactic scene: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
The story looks backward, examining the lives of the five characters through their first-person accounts leading up to the bridge accident, and then looks forward, with the thoughts of two others whose life missions becomes understanding the tragedy.
“Some of oldest philosophical questions have to do with fate and freedom whether there is a purpose or moral structure to the universe,” Weisberg said to the students. “If there really isn’t a plan, and things just happen, how should we live our lives? How do we go on?”
Topics of discussion related to the book and the “Year of Why?” touched on the meaning of life, coping with death, trying to understand catastrophic events, the connections among strangers, and the power of love, all subjects that the students can relate to at this stage of their lives, Fox said.
“There have been a lot of conversations on campus about wellness, resilience, dealing with stress, coping with things, and this book is a way to talk about these universal issues,” he said.
Several students said they appreciated the opportunity to have an intellectual discussion together as a class.
“It made me more aware of people’s behavior, and made me think about what those people love and how it impacts what they do,” said student Adrian Brown, from Jamaica, who is in the College of Arts and Sciences. “The principles of the book can be applied to our daily lives.”
Shannon Zhang, a freshman from Fairlawn, N.J. in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said she thinks broad questions are good for people getting to know one another. “I like the idea of everyone reading the same book so we have something to connect to, especially with these themes,” she said.
Weisberg said he saw the main theme as the transformative power of love, how it can give lives meaning even in a universe that seems devoid of meaning, and cited the famous last lines of the novel.
“But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and 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.”
Many of the small group discussions in the afternoon sessions centered on those themes, professors said.
“The novel did ask big, hard questions,” Kuttner said. “The scenarios in it can speak of complex things for these students: they’ve moved too; they’ve left home; and this is very complicated with families. That’s a thing that really speaks to their moment. They really got into that in the discussions.”
The students were asked to write short essays about the book to share in the discussions. “I was really impressed with what they wrote. They really thought about the book and had a lot of interesting things to say about it,” said Elaine Simon, director of the Urban Studies Program, adding that they all shared personal experiences in her group.
“We ended up getting into a conversation about the idea of what is research, related to one of characters in the book,” Simon said. “I thought that is a really good topic for students embarking on their university academic career.”