Following a months-long process, Miami University’s summer reading committee selected J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy” as the summer reading book for incoming freshmen.
President Gregory Crawford also gave his approval, allowing the committee to begin ordering copies the book and preparing for convocation next year.
Out of more than 100 books that were proposed to the committee, “Hillbilly Elegy” was selected because the committee believes the book is relevant to a number of national issues today.
“There was a real consensus. We looked at a lot of other books, but this was the one that everyone kept coming back to,” Susan Hurst, summer reading program committee chair, said. “It’s certainly a really popular book right now, and it’s been in the news a lot; the author has been in the news a lot.”
Vance grew up in Middletown, OH, and discusses in his memoir some of the struggles of growing up in a poor family in a rural area. He joined the Marine Corps after graduating high school and eventually went on to graduate from Ohio State University and Yale Law School. While the book itself is not political, many students and faculty on the committee said the book seems topical as the issues it describes relate back to today’s political climate.
“One idea behind the summer reading program is to generate some cohesiveness among the first-year students and getting everyone to think about one particular issue, especially a relevant one like this,” Hurst said. “I think a lot of people are interested in income inequality. Donald Trump got elected and some of the issues he touched on with his supporter base are some of the same issues this book touched upon.”
Junior Kelsey Forren was one of the first students to recommend the book to the committee. Forren is from Liberty Township in Ohio. She had seen the culture that Vance described in his memoir at home and thought it would be important to show other Miami students.
“I read the book in about a day, and I thought ‘wow, this would be an interesting book for my friends not from the area to read.’ It gives a new perspective on the area. It’s particularly relevant for Miami students, because it’s an opportunity to get out of their usual perspective and diversify their view,” Forren said.
“Hillbilly Elegy” was published in early 2016 and rose to the top of the New York Time’s Bestsellers List in August 2016 as well as January 2017. It was also announced last week that Imagine Entertainment bought the film rights to the memoir and the book is going to be turned into a movie, directed by Ron Howard.
As a local author, Vance captures the experience of many people who grow up living in rural parts of Ohio. While not every, or even most, Miami students who grow up in Ohio had the same experiences, the way of life that the memoir portrays is still prevalent in the area.
John M. Jeep, summer reading program committee chair, believes that it is important for incoming students — particularly those from out-of-state — to understand the issues affecting the area they plan on living in for the next four years.
“It’s important to know where you are and what the people around you are like. Now, not everyone that lives around here is a hillbilly. But plenty are, so it’s important to know that context,” Jeep said.
As part of convocation every year, the committee tries to get the author of the book to come speak to first-year students. Vance has spoken at Miami before, both at the Oxford and Middletown campuses, but has not been confirmed as a speaker at this year’s ceremony yet. As “Hillbilly Elegy” rises in popularity, it has become more difficult to book Vance as a speaker.
However, Jeep says that the summer reading committee has run into problems before where the author of a book was not available for convocation, and will often ask Miami students or an expert in a field related to the book’s topic to speak instead. Should Vance not be available this year, they plan to do the same thing.
The summer reading program is designed to foster communication among first-year students about topics that may be discussed in their classes throughout the semester. Convocation, where a speaker will discuss the book and students will attend break-out reading group discussions, is supposed to be the beginning of that discussion.
Jeep believes “Hillbilly Elegy” is a good choice for sparking lively conversations about the topics like income inequality and for encouraging students to think critically about how those issues affect the state of politics today.
“Vance never said this is a book about Trump supporters. It’s other people who have read it that said he’s talking about that culture. I haven’t gone back to the book and put on my Trump glasses to see it, but it seems to me that that would be a great discussion,” Jeep said. “I could envision a student saying ‘I’m a Trump supporter, and that’s not the way I am’ and that would be a discussion that would make it even richer.”
Overall, however, he said he hopes most students at least appreciate the book for its “uplifting” storyline and relate to Vance’s journey of growing up.
“Anyone who is well-intentioned can relate to the content and that’s one of the reasons we like it,” Jeep said.