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Wednesday, November 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW's Common Book program puts freshmen on same page

Seattle Times staff reporter

Move over, Oprah.

The University of Washington is launching a book club with 5,000 members — some more willing than others. Beginning next summer, every new student will be handed or mailed the same book and asked to read it by the time classes start.

The university chose its first "Common Book" Tuesday, part of an administration effort to make life cozier and more welcoming for freshmen. But getting English professors, students and administrators to agree on a title was no easy task.

"It kept changing every other meeting," said student-government President Lee Dunbar, whose office was one of about 16 represented on the Common Book committee. "They chose the intellectual route. We were pretty open to either route, but we wanted more of the readable route."

In the end, the 2006 winner was "Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder.

It's the true story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a crusading infectious-disease specialist dedicated to improving the health of the world's poorest people. Farmer, a Harvard physician, works closely with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.

"This is a stunning choice for us, because we are building an undergraduate program in global health. It sends a message to students about how they can make a difference in the world," said Christine Ingebritsen, the acting vice provost in the Office of Undergraduate Education.

Although Common Book won't be used for credits, the university will strongly encourage participation and is considering "25 or 30" ways to engage students with the book, such as study groups and speakers at convocation, Ingebritsen said. Buying and distributing the books will cost the UW $50,000 to $65,000.

Other finalists included "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini, a best-selling novel exploring class and relationships in modern Afghanistan, and "Bold Spirit" by Spokane author Linda Lawrence Hunt, which details the true story of two women who walked across America in 1896.

The university is not the first to launch a Common Book, often called a Freshman Book elsewhere. Western Washington University recently began a similar program called "Western Reads."

Perhaps the most well-known program is run by the University of North Carolina, which found itself at the center of an international controversy for its 2002 choice: "Approaching the Qur'án: The Early Revelations."

Some argued that the public university was overstepping the line between church and state.

But a little controversy helped readership, apparently. About 65 percent of students read the text that year, a record in eight years, said Judy Deshotels, who helps run the program. Most years, the school gets about 50 percent participation, she said.

"When you are asking an 18-year-old to read a book over summer, you'll get some who are excited about that," she said, "and others who won't invest their time that way."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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