The novel 'Things Fall Apart' brings people together as 59 high schools statewide and 24,000 Cornell alumni sign on for annual reading

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ITHACA, N.Y. -- "Things Fall Apart" is bringing people together. Nearly 5,000 students from 59 high schools in 17 New York counties and New York City will read Chinua Achebe's masterful novel "Things Fall Apart" as part of a statewide pilot program coordinated through Cornell Cooperative Extension and the 2005 New Student Reading Project at Cornell.

In addition, 24,000 Cornell alumni from 31 class years also will join what has become an annual rite of passage for incoming freshman and transfer students at Cornell.

"The response from high school teachers has been phenomenal," said Nancy Fey, communications coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension. "Many have written e-mails expressing their appreciation for being able to take part in the reading project."

Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education, said, "The pilot project is an expression of Cornell's land-grant mission and its obligation to the intellectual enhancement of the people of this state." He also stressed the unprecedented growth of alumni involvement.

Outreach has been an important part of the project since it was established with the reading of Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" in 2001. Town-gown and alumni elements grew exponentially during a communitywide reading of "Frankenstein" in 2002, setting the pace for continued growth.

Last year 23 alumni classes ordered 19,500 copies of Franz Kafka's "The Trial." Eight more classes have come aboard for this year's reading, and 24,000 copies of the special Cornell edition of "Things Fall Apart" await shipment.

"Cornell's alumni love getting the book," said Tina Gourley, alumni officer in class and reunion programs. "They love being intellectually engaged with what's happening on campus."

The statewide pilot project reaches high schools from the counties of Erie to Suffolk and Jefferson to Westchester. Twenty schools in Nassau County will participate, the largest number in any county. At Kildonan, a private high school for dyslexic students in Dutchess County, 15 compact disc recordings of Achebe's novel have been prepared. In Schuyler the project has inspired the founding of an advanced reader's club for students who wish to participate. County-based cooperative extension educators are facilitating the outreach efforts with their local high schools.

"Things Fall Apart" was written in 1958 and depicts the rise and fall of Okonkwo, a Nigerian "whose sense of manliness is more akin to that of his warrior ancestors than to that of his fellow clansmen who have converted to Christianity and are appeasing the British administrators who infiltrate their village," according to The Library Journal. Determined not to repeat the mistakes of his idle, debt-ridden father, the stern, hardworking Okonkwo is at once "a quintessential old-order Nigerian and a universal character in whom sons of all races have identified as the figure of their father."

The Cornell reading project was the brainchild of Provost Biddy Martin, who saw the initiative as a way to encourage intellectual as well as social rapport among incoming students. The project is sponsored by the Provost's Office, with assistance from the office of Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy.

New Cornell students and their professors will discuss, criticize and evaluate "Things Fall Apart" at required campus events during the university's orientation week in August, including a large-group symposium and small-group discussions. A faculty member will lead each small-group discussion with the assistance of an upper-level student. When classes begin, many new students also will have opportunities to write about some aspect of the novel in their first-year writing seminars.