Candide, Pangloss, and Cunegonde Join Class of 2005

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As the incoming freshmen arrive on campus this fall, they will undoubtedly hope that the University will prove to be the best of all possible worlds in which to spend the next four years. Having spent part of the summer reading Voltaire’s Candide for this year’s Penn Reading Project, however, they may be careful about characterizing it in those words. After all, the character who did see the world that way, the philosopher Pangloss, ended up getting hanged by the Portuguese authorities in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake, while young Candide himself was publicly whipped and three others were burned alive.
    “When students come to college, they must read something on more than one level,” says Dr. David Anthony Fox, director of the Penn Reading Project and a theater-arts lecturer. “Finding a sophisticated way to read is an important part of the university experience. And Candide, which is tremendously dry and ironic and tongue-in-cheek, is a good place to start that.”
    The fact that it is also funny made Candide an appealing choice for the committee of faculty, staff, and students, which was headed by Dr. John Richetti, professor and chair of English.
    Over the summer, the 2,400-2,500 freshmen will all receive copies of the book, as will discussion leaders and group organizers. On September 5, the students will be divided into small groups to discuss Candide, Voltaire, and various historical themes, augmented by three lectures given by prominent members of the faculty. A festival of related films will also be shown on Penn Video Network, and according to Fox the committee is still hopeful that a theatrical production of Candide can be arranged somewhere.
    The Penn Reading Project is now in its 11th year, and as usual, the committee selected a work that has some relevance to students.
    “The protagonist is a young person,” notes Fox, “and it’s a kind of journey of that individual. I think it’s a book that talks about balancing personal and social responsibility. And although the take on optimism is ironic, it’s also a very significant message of the book. To use pop-psychology jargon, it’s a book about coping strategies. It’s about coping with natural and human-made disasters.”
    Of course, he adds, “I’d like to think that four years at Penn is not like the Lisbon earthquake or an auto-da-fe.”

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