My university is no different. It has assigned (to all incoming freshman) the book Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. The book is described by its proponents as “the true story” of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American father who stays in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to protect his rental properties. According to administrators at my university, “The book tells the story of an innocent Muslim who travels through New Orleans helping others before he is arrested and imprisoned on accusations of terrorism.” Although Colum McCann of The Guardian describes it as “a level-headed look at Muslim America” the book does have some detractors. I’m among them.
The choice to assign Zeitoun as a “Common Reading Experience” was a bad one for at least four different reasons:
1. Reading comprehension level. Universities simply have to get back to assigning the classics and similarly challenging books to their students. This book is written at a middle-school reading level. There are no big words or big ideas. If our students are suffering from intellectual atrophy it is because we have chosen not to push them to realize their God-given potential. That is an abdication of our responsibility as educators.
2. Treatment of the War on Terror. Some critics of Zeitoun have observed that Eggers tries to subtly and unfairly attack veterans of the War on Terror who assisted local police in the aftermath of Katrina. The criticism of Eggers is twofold – first, that the book falsely claims that the protagonist was targeted for incarceration because he is Muslim and, second, that mistakes made by the local authorities were falsely attributed to soldiers who had served in the War on Terror.
But criticisms of this book as an implicit attack on our soldiers and the War of Terror fall short. The book is, in reality, an explicit attack on our military and the War on Terror. Just read the cover of the book, which says “The true story of one family, caught between America’s two biggest policy disasters: the war on terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina.”
3. Treatment of Christianity. The author begins taking backhanded swipes at Christianity on just page twelve of this book. Within fifty pages, he begins a more explicit attack. This is done by making allegations against an un-named preacher at an un-named church. The problem is that none of the accounts are corroborated. The motive becomes obvious in a few pages with his incessant and fawning praise of Islam - the religion of peace, tolerance, and inclusion.
4. Treatment of Islam. The outright silliness with regard to Islam begins on page 66 when Kathy, the protagonist’s wife, converts to the Religion of Peace, “She read the Quran and was struck by its power and lyricism.” Her experience with Islam is contrasted with her experience with Christianity “The Christian preachers she’d heard had spent a good amount of time talking about who would and wouldn’t go to hell, how hot it burned and for how long, but the imams she began to meet made no such pronouncements.” Christians are mean, Muslims are nice. Following so far?
Dave Eggers writes that Kathy was attracted to Islam because of its “bent towards social justice.” And what was the effect of her conversion to Islam? She was softened through the lens of Islam. As a result “She was less aggressive.”
And so it goes for 325 pages. The story of a man who suffered some setbacks because he made a very stupid decision – to stay in New Orleans during Katrina despite repeated warnings to leave – is converted into a story of victimization. A poor Muslim is oppressed and mistreated for no other reason than that he is Muslim. It is as trite and predictable as you would expect an Oprah –endorsed-dime-store-novel-written-on-an-eighth-grade-level to be.
If administrators and faculty at my university really wanted to assign a book that encouraged critical thinking in a “Common Reading Experience” they should have selected Home and Away by Nancy and David French. Although Home and Away is about a family’s experience during the War on Terror – and also alternates between the perspective of husband and wife – it differs from Zeitoun in four fundamental ways:
1. Reading comprehension level. David French has a law degree from Harvard University. Consequently, he tends to write above a middle-school reading level. His wife Nancy is also accustomed to writing political and social commentary for adults who have actually attended college. So this book is likely to challenge students to think and occasionally turn to the dictionary to help them understand words they never heard on Oprah Winfrey.
2. Treatment of the War on Terror. This book was written as if we actually won the War in Iraq. The reason David and Nancy chose to take that approach is that we actually did win the War in Iraq. And the beauty of their approach is that an explanation for the victory is offered. David leads the way in this area by explaining to the reader that enlisting the help of Iraqi men was absolutely essential in dictating the success of the surge. More on that later.
3. Treatment of Christianity. Nancy really shines on this issue. No one can really understand the pressure war places on the wives and families of our soldiers. But one can, through Nancy’s words, get a great sense of the importance of Christianity and Christian community is helping wives and families through the time of war and the difficult separation that it brings. She does it without being pushy or being preachy. She even gently pokes fun at members of her congregation. But at no point does she take the Dave Eggers approach of trying to make one religion look superior to another with insinuation or slander. She just speaks with truth and humility and leaves the rest to the reader – the one she assumes has finished middle school.
4. Treatment of Islam. The beauty of David’s approach to explaining the success of the surge is that it forces the reader to draw a very important conclusion; namely that there is more than one type of Muslim. Some Muslims want to blow people up in the name of Islam. But other Muslims want to fight against guilty Muslims who would blow up innocent Jews and Christians. Dave Eggers paints a monolithic picture of Christians with a broad brush. But the art of David French is more nuanced – so much so that John Kerry could explain it to liberals who watch MSNBC.
In the final analysis, the university had a choice between two alternatives: 1) Assigning a book that tells a story about a selfish man who made selfish decisions in an effort to make readers ashamed of their country, or 2) Assigning a book tells a story about a selfless man who made selfless decisions in an effort to make readers proud of their country.
I think it is a shame that students will be deprived of reading a real work of art that is so historically informative and culturally relevant. Instead, they will be forced to examine a finger painting and pretend it is a Picasso. No wonder they seldom seem brighter after they leave home and go away to college.