RISD Common Reading Program

RISD Common Reading Program

This summer RISD has joined colleges and universities across the country in assigning a selected book to all incoming freshmen, a kind of book club bonding experience that hastaken off in higher education in the last decade.

But, true to RISD’s penchant for the idiosyncratic and intriguingly off-center, first-year students won’t be readingThe Kite Runner, A Hope in the Unseen or other bestsellers that are among the top picks on college campuses. Instead, they’ll be diving into a 1927 pulp fiction novel written by an author who described his guiding literary principle as “cosmic horror,” and featuring a protagonist who is driven insane by a journey that leads him into a world of sorcerers and the occult.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was never published during the lifetime of its author, Rhode Island nativeH.P. Lovecraft. When it eventually did see the light of day, it was in a 1941 issue of the fantasy/horror magazineWeird Tales. Although it’s anything but a standard selection, RISD faculty say the work is the perfect choice to inaugurate RISD’sCommon Reading Program: a work of visually rich fiction that is steeped in Rhode Island history and that tackles complex themes – from the notion of fate and the power of family bloodlines to the dangers of modernization and the limits of scientific inquiry.

H.P. Lovecraft in 1934

And as a piece of literature, the book allows students to explore a man who never knew fame in his lifetime, but whose otherworldly fiction would later influence writers from Joyce Carol Oates to Jorge Luis Borges to Stephen King.

Perfect Choice

“It’s such a great story, and it’s definitely a RISD-esque choice,” saysDan Cavicchi, associate professor of American Studies and head of the department of History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences. “It makes you think:‘OK, a horror novel – what’s going on here?’ And that’s exactly what we want. We want students to find their way into the book based on their own interests. And one thing that sold us on Lovecraft was that he loved Providence so much, and described it with such enthusiasm.”

From beginning to end, the book vividly evokes the colonial-era buildings, parks and geography of the East Side, the section of Providence where RISD is located. Lovecraft described it as a “city of spires” and referenced local haunts adjacent to campus, including the Providence Art Club,the Providence Athenaeum, the First Baptist Church of America, the Governor Stephen Hopkins House and Market House, now home to RISD’s Film/Animation/Video Department. The 1801 Halsey House, at 140 Prospect Street, figures prominently as the home where a young Charles Dexter Ward grows up, the child of a prominent Rhode Island family who descends into madness and later escapes from an asylum.

Assistant Professor of EnglishNicole Merola, who spearheaded the summer reading program, says she was so drawn in by Lovecraft’s sense of place that she began looking up historical maps of Pawtuxet Village, where the protagonist’s doctor goes to investigate a bungalow and makes a horrific discovery. “I’m looking at the maps and realized, this was right near my house,” says Merola, who lives in the Providence suburb surrounding the village.

“The protagonist is this kind of obsessed antiquarian who does all this research to discover that a certain ancestor was a practitioner of the dark arts and an occultist,” Merola says. “Obviously we’re not trying to turn students into occultists, but we thought the character’s intense obsession and his hunger for knowledge was a good metaphor for the intense attention students here will invest in their own studies. And the digging he does offers opportunities for conversations about the artistic process.”

In July incoming Foundation Studies and transfer students received electronic copies ofThe Case of Charles Dexter Ward. When they arrive for Orientation on September 10, they will receive a new edition of the book – with extensive footnotes and photography – that was released last year by the University of Tampa Press.

Assistant Dean of Students Sarah Spencer, whocoordinated the new initiative,notes that the goal of the Common Reading Program is to provide a community-building assignment that promotes intellectual curiosity, exploration and dialogue. All new students have been asked to come to campus in September “ready to discuss, explore, visualize and translate the book’s meanings.”

Merola says that anaccompanying website will feature drawings and other work by students inspired by Lovecraft’s fiction. The book will be woven into various Orientation programs, with faculty-led discussion groups, a short film about the author and tours of the city focusing on sites and landmarks identified in the book.

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