First Year Common Reading
In 1817, the writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his pen name Stendhal, emerged from the church of Santa Croce in Florence having been overwhelmed by art. “I felt my heart pulsating,” he recounted in his journals, going on to say that he was “submerged in a great surging wave of mysterious glory.” Stendhal was neither the first viewer to succumb to art’s transformative power, nor the first writer to try to put it into words.
Art’s curious and overwhelming powers are the center of Ann Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto, as well. The novel’s title, which translates roughly to “nice singing,” refers to a lyrical style of singing using a full and rich voice with smooth phrasing. It describes a kind of voice full of breadth and depth, the kind of voice the liberal arts hopes to cultivate in you, no matter the field of your own knowledge. Because the arts teach us not what but how to love, they also show us how to investigate our passions, and how to test them in the laboratories of the mind and heart.
Indeed, the novel brings together businessmen, translators, priests, politicians, members of a renegade militia, and artists—all thrown together in an impossible cage when, during a party at an unnamed South American vice president’s home, terrorists take everyone hostage.
What happens after that can’t be described, because the novel’s true subject is how art’s democratic power reaches all of us. Art, in trying to say the ineffable, transforms us, helping each of us to discover parts of ourselves that we didn’t know existed, and allowing our selves to be known in a deeper, broader way.
In just a few months, you will find yourself at Washington College. You’ll find yourselves thrown together with new folks whose studies and experiences will enrich your own. You will encounter new traditions, new names, new friends. But you will find yourself, too, by participating in the legacy of this 235-year-old institution—in rigorous and rewarding classes, in deep and unhurried conversations with friends, classmates, and teammates.
We welcome you to Washington College, a place that is a haven for thinking and writing, for creating, for exploration and crafting your future, for finding your voice, your selves.