Top professors weigh in on best reading

Friday, December 29, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:13 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

From romance novels to sci-fi thrillers, everyone has a favorite book. Books can have a tremendous influence on our lives, whether they pull on our heartstrings or force our minds to work a little harder.

Finishing a really good book can give us a triumphant feeling, but it also leaves us with the task of choosing what to read next. Fortunately, the Kemper Fellows at MU have helped us out by producing a list of the most influential books of the past century.

The William T. Kemper Fellowships for Teaching Excellence were established by the William T. Kemper Foundation in 1991. They have honored MU’s top professors for their dedication to providing quality teaching in the classroom. Kemper, a 1926 MU graduate, was dedicated to improving the human condition through education, health and human services, civic improvements and the arts. The William T. Kemper Foundation was established in 1989 after his death.

The Kemper Fellows compiled the book list primarily to promote reading among high school students. To promote the list, the Office of University Affairs created a colorful poster that it’s offering to schools, libraries, extension offices and anyone else who’s interested.

Laura Roloff, manager of marketing communications at University Affairs, worked closely with the committee of Kemper winners who made the final selections for the list.

“The English teachers and library directors at the schools have been very excited about this poster,” Roloff said. “We’ve been surprised, however, that even science teachers and middle school teachers have been calling for a poster.“The list is varied enough to appeal to a lot of different types of readers and interests.”

Five-thousand posters were printed, and about 2,700 have been distributed statewide.

Kemper Fellows recommended 216 books, which the committee then narrowed down to 160 based on loose criteria. The books had to be well-written, appropriate and easily accessible for high school students and published after 1900. The committee tried to limit the selection to one book per author.

The panel consisted of about eight members, including Bill Bondeson, professor of philosophy and family and community medicine; Mary Kay Blakely, associate professor of journalism; Nancy West, associate professor of English; and Meera Chandrasekhar, professor of physics and astronomy. They met three times and deliberated for hours.

With such a diverse and well-read committee, the book list suggests a wide range of recommended reads, including “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, “The Feminine Mystique,” by Betty Friedan, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” by J.K. Rowling, “The Satanic Verses,” by Salman Rushdie and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee.

Bondeson said one of his contributions was to recommend books that are not exclusively Western because he thinks they are important in this day and age.

The idea to create the 2006 book list was modeled from a poster of 150 top books in 1989, which was done in celebration of MU’s sesquicentennial.

“Those books (from the 1989 poster) were some of the great books that went all the way back to the Greeks and Romans, and it was widely circulated,” Bondeson said. “(The 2006 poster) was just a redo of that idea, although there were two things that made it different.”

The first, Bondeson said, was the process used to choose the books. For the 2006 poster, the Kemper Fellows, rather than a broader panel of MU professors, were the selecting group, and the committee made the final selection. The second difference was the requirement that the books had to be written after 1900.

The committee also tried to pick books that might not be on high school reading lists. For instance, they chose “Three Guineas,” by Virginia Woolf instead of “A Room of One’s Own” because the latter is better-known.

A Columbia author, William Trogdon — alias William Least Heat-Moon — also made the list. His cult classic, “Blue Highways,” was chosen by the committee.

While still only in the realm of discussion, the Kemper Fellows, in conjunction with University Affairs, is also interested in producing a poster of influential movies, music, art or architecture from the past century.

Bondeson thinks a project of that nature would be difficult, however, because those lists would require a stronger visual component than a list of books does.

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