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'Homer & Langley' chosen for New Student Reading Project

The summer reading for new students entering Cornell in the fall will be E.L. Doctorow's most recent novel, "Homer & Langley," Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Laura Brown has announced.

The 2009 novel is a fictionalized redaction of the lives of the Collyer brothers, whose story became a New York urban legend that, in Doctorow's words, "seemed ... a Satanic mockery of what we all stand for." In the book, after their parents die in the flu pandemic of 1918, Homer and Langley create a world of their own within the family mansion on Fifth Avenue, apart from but intimately and paradoxically connected with the transformative events of 20th-century American history. The real brothers died in 1947; in the novel they live through the 1970s.

"'Homer & Langley' is an interesting choice, first because it is based on a real New York story and thus raises issues about fictionalizing the news," said Charlotte Rosen, Johnson School senior lecturer of management and a member of the final selection committee. "I believe that a community read should reflect something about belonging to (or rejecting) a community, and this thread runs throughout the brothers' tale."

The New Student Reading Project will present six lectures on topics related to the novel during Orientation for incoming freshmen and transfer students. The lectures will reflect a wide range of topical, academic and intellectual avenues of investigation generated by the book, while showcasing Cornell's academic diversity. The book will also be discussed at small-group seminars, facilitated by faculty and staff members.

Doctorow is one of the most visible and influential American novelists of the last 40 years and a leading figure in the development of the postmodernist historical novel.

"Doctorow's books offer lively and unconventional accounts of real historical figures engaged in highly charged events whose ultimate meaning -- if indeed they have an ultimate meaning -- remains tantalizingly elusive," Brown said. "His plots portray events and topics from the arts and politics, science and technology, business and industry, and war and revolution, and his characters come from all walks of life, from a range of social classes and races and from notoriety and obscurity."

"Homer & Langley" generates a variety of topics for discussion and exploration, Brown said -- including major events of 20th-century America from Prohibition to flower children, the modern media phenomenon of "reality," the significance of community, the psychology of hoarding and the claims of family, as well as sustainability, news, rebellion and autarky, or self-sufficiency.

Doctorow has been central to efforts by scholars, critics and theorists to comprehend recent experimental developments in fictional form and their relevance to our understanding of the contemporary world. His honors include the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards and the National Humanities Medal.

Books for the reading project, now in its 11th year, are suggested by the Cornell community. Finalists are chosen and then read and discussed by the university's academic leadership before the final selection is made. New students will receive a copy of the book and study questions in their Orientation package. The project is also supported by a website with a blog and other resources, at

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Blaine Friedlander