Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' selected as book all incoming Cornell freshmen will read this summer

ITHACA, N.Y. -- A world-famous novel written two centuries ago by an 18-year-old Englishwoman will be required reading for all Cornell University incoming freshman and undergraduate transfer students in fall 2002.

The newest selection for the New Student Reading Project seems the perfect choice. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein not only gave the world it's first characterization of the "mad scientist," inspiring scores of movies and books, points out Cornell Vice Provost Isaac Kramnick, but it raised concerns about the role of science in the modern world that seem more relevant than ever today.

Shelley initially was more well known for her lineage than her literary imagination. She was the daughter of early feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and anarchist philosopher William Godwin, who wroteEnquiry Concerning Political Justice. In addition, she married Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the leading poets of his age. She was challenged to write a "ghost story" by rival romantic poet Lord Byron while Shelley and her husband were on an outing at Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Her enduring work, about a scientist whose experiments to create a human being unleash a monster, was first published in 1818.

Students will be given free copies of the book this summer and will engage in faculty-led small-group discussions about it during their first weeks on campus, at Orientation and in most freshman writing seminars. Members of the Cornell community are also urged to read the book.

"The idea is to build an intellectual and social rapport among students, faculty and staff through the collective experience of reading, thinking and talking about a challenging text," said Provost Biddy Martin, whose office sponsors the project, which was launched last fall with Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel as the required text.

To select this year's book, Martin and Kramnick solicited ideas from current freshmen, last fall's discussion facilitators and a group of faculty from different disciplines. They then submitted their final recommendation to President Hunter Rawlings and Cornell's academic deans, who gave their approval at the end of the fall 2001 semester. "We wanted a book that raised important questions, appealed to students and faculty from the entire range of academic disciplines and had important implications for science and ethics," said Kramnick. "We found that book in Frankenstein, which is compelling for a number of reasons," he said. "It invites reflection on both historical and contemporary issues in the sciences, social sciences and humanities -- from concerns about cloning and other technologies to questions about creativity and the nature of our humanity." In addition, the fact that "Shelley wrote the book when she was the same age as most freshmen," said Kramnick, may engage incoming students.

"The Frankenstein story has evident cultural significance," added Martin. "It provides us with an opportunity to discuss a classic text from an earlier historical period and to examine its popular cultural resonances -- it is represented in countless films throughout the past century, including the first one, by inventor Thomas Edison, and it has been invoked or treated in nearly all the media. We anticipate that it will provoke some fascinating conversations and also permit us to have some fun."

In addition to the start-of-semester discussions, a film series sponsored by Cornell Cinema is planned featuring a range of Frankenstein-inspired movies, including the Mel Brooks comedy "Young Frankenstein" and the cult classic "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Cornell trustees and council members have asked to discuss the book during Trustee-Council weekend in October 2002, and some alumni plan to talk about it during Alumni Weekend in June 2003. For more information, or to get involved in the project, contact Michael Busch at or 255-3062.


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