First Year Reading Program selection deals with race in America​​​

Notes From No Man’s Land, the book selected for Washington University’s 2013-14 First Year Reading Program, examines race in America through the unique perspective of author Eula Biss.

Biss weaves her own experiences through essays about mixed families, lynchings, Americans behaving badly in Mexico, being a white reporter at an African-American newspaper, teaching at an inner-city school and much more.

Notes From No Man’s Land received the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize in 2008 and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 2009.

According to American Book Review, “Biss reexamines not only her own history but that of her country, revealing in both delicate, poetic prose and blunt, necessarily emotionless journalism the truths, both painful and triumphant, of the American experiment.”

The First Year Reading Program, a strategic initiative of the First Year Center, seeks to create a shared intellectual experience for all incoming students. Fall 2013 will be the program’s 11th year.

A copy of the book will be mailed this summer to freshmen. On Aug. 26, students will meet in small groups with a faculty member or administrator to discuss the book. Related activities and displays will continue during the first semester. Events will be posted on the First Year Reading Program website (

The First Year Reading Program steering committee — composed of faculty, staff and students — selected the book after a recommendation by Leonard Green, PhD, professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences.

Green said the book will prompt​ students to confront the history of racism and cultural identity.

“But what makes the book so special is that it is a literary achievement, not a civics lesson,” Green said. “Some already have commented that it may be the finest piece of essay writing since that of Joan Didion. It is brilliant writing that is alluring and disturbing.

“Many individuals initially assume Eula Biss to be African American. An interesting fallout is that some then apparently become a bit angry when they find out she is white.​​”

Green, who will be a faculty discussion leader for the First Year Reading Program this fall, said, “the reader will be changed — and how better to be introduced to what a college education should do.​”

Alicia Schnell, director of the First Year Reading Program, said the committee did not specifically set out to pick a book on race and identity for the program.

“Members of the committee were very taken with the book and enjoyed its style and approach. It is both accessible and challenging, and it lends itself well to thought-provoking discussion and critical analysis,” Schnell said.

“We are confident the book will spark lively discussion and dialogue about race, identity, privilege, belonging and community while inspiring students to thoughtfully explore their own experiences, beliefs and perceptions.

“It is our hope that the book will continue to build on this spring’s campus conversations about diversity and will further our efforts toward creating a Washington University that is open, welcoming and inclusive toward all.”

Biss will visit campus Sept. 9 to give an Assembly Series talk and meet with groups of students and faculty. There will be a contest for students, and top prize winners will be invited to a luncheon with Biss.

Stan Braude, PhD, lecturer in biology in Arts & Sciences, again will offer a one-credit course for freshmen based on the book, which will be held in the residence halls in the evening.

For more information about the book, visit For information on the program, visit