Providence, R.I.--Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote the book that every Providence College freshman was encouraged to read during the summer, spoke to students in person at Freshman Family Weekend, urging them to embrace the challenge “Don’t change. Change,” on their college journey.
“It’s the simplest and most impossible and most necessary thing to do: To continue to be yourself and to change,” said Foer.
His novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), which is the story of 9-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father dies in the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, was chosen for the College’s first-ever Freshman Common Reading Program. Students were given copies of the book to read during the summer. They posted online reflections about it, then discussed it in group sessions with faculty, staff, and other students at New Student Orientation in the fall.
Foer’s address during the opening program in the Peterson Recreation Center was a highlight of Freshman Family Weekend on November 4-6. The weekend drew approximately 1,200 parents and students to campus for activities that included artistic performances, athletic events, panels on career success and parenting, and tours of historic Providence.
The chance to meet the author personally “was a really great experience,” said Matthew C. Cunningham ’12 (Brockton, Mass.). “Just to get inside his head a little bit was quite fascinating.”
In his talk before students, parents, staff, and faculty, Foer joked that “when I was your age, I was 12, mentally and physically.” He questioned only what others questioned, and his engagement with the world was limited to TV.
“I was stable,” Foer said. Then, “I changed as I’d never changed before and haven’t changed since.”
The difference for Foer was his encounter, on a trip to Israel and later in college, with the poet Yehuda Amichai. Foer “became a greenhouse for (Amichai’s) words.” The poet’s ideas led Foer to become a vegetarian, question his religious identity, and change his career plans, which had included medical school.
Foer said Amichai, who died in 2000, wished there were two more commandments: “Don’t change” and “Change.” Students should be open to new possibilities while remaining true to themselves, Foer said.
“Believe anything is possible, laugh at the skeptics--but know that not everything is possible,” Foer said. “It’s easy to change your Facebook profile. It’s harder to change yourself.”
Like Homer’s Iliad
College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80 likened Foer’s book to Homer’s The Iliad, which freshmen are studying this fall. In that epic, the result is “the end of Achilles’ anger and him becoming human again,” Father Shanley said.
Foer’s book “does what Aristotle says a good story does,” said Father Shanley. “It doesn’t tell everything about 9/11. It focuses on one thing: Oskar. We see what force and violence does to us as we see what it did to this young man.”
Foer agreed that his story was about a journey.
“To me the book is about one person, a young person, becoming another person,” said Foer. “He can’t bring his father back to life. He must bring himself back to life, without losing his essential self. He has to change in the right way.”
Guest at Legacy Lunch, panel discussions
Following his address in the Peterson Center, Foer was the guest at a Legacy Lunch in Slavin Center ’64 Hall attended by freshmen whose parents are PC alumni. Two students, Caroline M. Brown ’12 (Northbridge, Mass.) and Kaitlin C. Hill ’15 (Mansfield, Mass.), asked him a series of questions, including whether Oskar, his central character, had found truth.
“Is that what he was looking for? I’m not so sure,” Foer responded. While Oskar finds the secret to the key his father left behind, “I’m not sure that’s what Oskar seeks,” Foer said.
Foer also took part in a discussion group with faculty, staff, and students who helped plan the Freshman Common Reading Program. He talked about the use of graphic elements in his book, how he does his research, and his decision to pursue a career in writing rather than medicine.
Foer told the panel he would have liked to have heard the discussions PC students had about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
“I wish I could have been in on some of these conversations,” Foer said. “I’m sure I would find them awkward, being the writer, but also engaging. I’m sure there are hundreds of ideas about my book that I never considered before and that I would be happy to know.”