"It's just like that guy says in 'Fight Club': 'If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?'" pondered Sarah Guilbert, HumEc '11, in response to a question on the issue of identity in the novel "The Pickup" by Nadine Gordimer.
Identity, along with a host of other complex topics, was the focus of much discourse at more than 260 small-group discussions of Gordimer's book across campus Aug. 20. The novel, this year's New Student Reading Project choice, is the story of a wealthy South African woman whose chance encounter with an illegal Muslim immigrant initiates a voyage of personal discovery. It explores such issues as the importance of diversity, the value of human relationships and whether or not there is such a thing as true love.
Discussion leader Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development, urged her group in Mews Hall East Study Room to try to relate the problems confronted by characters in the novel to the difficulties they face adjusting to life on campus.
"When you come to college, it's all about figuring out who you are and how you got there," she said, recalling anecdotes of her years as an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley.
Applying the novel's treatment of diversity to her own experience as a new freshman, Zoe Proom, A&S '11, noted that unlike her high school, she said, Cornell is very diverse, and she hopes to take advantage of its diversity to broaden her horizons and expand the variety of her personal experiences -- just as the characters in Gordimer's novel enrich their lives by interacting with individuals of different backgrounds.
Casasola agreed, added that "efforts to celebrate diversity can make you feel weird sometimes, so you look for things that are familiar" and risk missing the opportunities offered by diversity. Students must be careful, she said, not to let their search for comfort distance them from people who are different.
Of particular interest to Casasola's discussion participants was the question of whether the relationship between the novel's main characters is one of true love or just convenience. The characters' marriage is "more of a device, a piece of paper," than an expression of real love, asserted Rich Huggett, Eng. '11. Nonetheless, he said, even if the relationship is not one of traditional, "fairy-tale" love, it is perhaps because Gordimer wishes to avoid disingenuous portrayals of unrealistic romance. Most students agreed that the novelist's focus on presenting realistic human relationships in all of their complexity was an admirable element of her book.
Casasola, a faculty fellow in the Just About Music residence hall and a veteran of New Student Reading Project forums, observed, "It's been a long time since I actually read for pleasure. And I'm glad I read this instead of the seventh Harry Potter."
Chris Tozzi '08 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.