Summer Reading Lecture Focuses on Timeless Themes

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Members of the Dartmouth Class of 2017 are not back in class yet, but already they’re wrapping up their first college assignment.

River Why

First-year and transfer students were asked to read David James Duncan’s novel “The River Why” this summer.

As part of new student orientation, first-year and transfer students were assigned David James Duncan’s novel The River Why as summer reading. Each year, a Dartmouth professor assigns a book for new students to read, and delivers a lecture about the book after students arrive in Hanover.

Duncan’s novel was chosen by Randall Balmer, the Mandel Family Professor of Arts & Sciences and chair of the religion department. The book is about Gus Orviston, a fly-fisherman, and his journey of self-discovery while fishing Oregon rivers.

“I chose The River Why because of themes I consider timeless,” says Balmer. “First, the transition from home to the broader world—something clearly relevant to first-year students. Second, the move from a merely naturalistic understanding of the world to one that at least allows for the possibility of a metaphysical dimension. Finally, the quest for community. Gus Orviston, a solitary, maniacal fly-fisherman, recognizes the need for companionship and community.”

This summer, Balmer met Duncan for the first time at the author’s home outside Missoula, Mont.

randall balmer

“I chose ‘The River Why’ because of themes I consider timeless,” says Professor Randall Balmer. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00 )

“We spent most of the day with Duncan at his home, a log cabin, and he talked about many things, including the ravages of climate change in the Rocky Mountain West,” says Balmer.

Incoming students have had a summer reading assignment since at least 2002, when Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was the book and the lecturer was Professor Ron Green of the religion department. Last year, they read Anne Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been, which was chosen by Anne Kapuscinski, the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Sustainability Science and chair of the Environmental Studies Program.

New student orientation begins September 10; Balmer’s lecture will take place September 12.