A Father-Daughter Duo takes on Dostoevsky

The Columbia College Alumni Association recently launched Core Conversations, a virtual book club that allows alumni around the world to reengage with the Core in a close reading of texts, guided by Columbia faculty. The first Core Conversation began in October with more than 400 College alumni signing up to tackle Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, led by Professor Deborah Martinsen. Among those readers were Bill Gray ’77 and his daughter Campbell Gray ’11. Columbia College Today caught up with the Grays to ask them about the book club and the family College connection.

CCT: What inspired you to sign up for the book club together?

Campbell: I’ve had many conversations with my dad over the years about the Core, going back to freshman year and The Iliad and everything in Lit Hum. We always had this bonding experience [over books], but haven’t done so in a few years, since I graduated. My dad heard about the book club first and signed up and encouraged me to do the same.

Bill: Campbell has a love of reading, as I do, and we occasionally read the same books together and then talk about them over dinner. When I saw this digital book club, I thought this would be a great opportunity to do it together!

CCT: What have your conversations about Crime and Punishment been like?

Campbell: They’ve been really good; I was just home for Thanksgiving, when my dad caught me finishing off the latest assignment, and we worked through the questions that Professor Martinsen had provided. We’ve had really casual conversations about it, usually using the provided questions as jumping-off points.

Bill: There’s also the issue of bragging rights; Campbell has posted a few times, I’ve posted a few times, but it’s Campbell’s posts that have gotten the most appreciation from Professor Martinsen. So there’s a bit of a competitive angle here — I have to come up with something good!

CCT: Did you read Crime and Punishment as part of Lit Hum and, if so, is there anything that stands out as different this time?

Campbell: Crime and Punishment was part of the syllabus when I was at school and I remember really enjoying it. But as much as college students are theoretically adults, I would say that my reading it at 18 versus reading it now at 29 has been really different. Professor Martinsen’s introductory post talks about the political atmosphere in Russia at the time and the religious implications of the text, which I’m sure were explained when I was 18 but weren’t at the forefront of my mind while reading. Now I have a lot more background going into the reading that has informed it quite a bit. Reading a book 10 years later really gives a different perspective.

Bill: I’m pretty sure it was not part of my curriculum — I think we read The Brothers Karamazov. I did read Crime and Punishment 10 years or so ago when Campbell was talking about it — I think it was one of her favorite books from Lit Hum — and I realized it was a gap in my reading. It’s funny reading it now, because I remember reading things as a College student and being very judgmental of the characters’ flaws, and their failures and their weaknesses; now I read them with much greater sympathy. I don’t know, maybe as an older person you’re more aware that humans are flawed. It’s fun reading something and seeing how your perspective changes as a 60-plus-year-old.

CCT: Thanks to the Core Curriculum there is a shared education across generations of College alumni. What does that mean to you as a Columbia family?

Campbell: When I was applying to colleges, the Core was at the forefront of my decision-making process. It always really appealed to me that everyone at the College has some of the same experiences — shared experiences that span so many years. I loved the Core; I think it’s one of the most special things about a Columbia education.

Bill: I was in one of the last all-male classes — that didn’t change until the ’80s — so it was great having a daughter go to Columbia. Despite that huge difference in the composition of our classes, I believe in the whole concept of the Core, that there are some things that are fundamentally human that are captured in books. Yes, the books may change from time to time, but the issues that are discussed and our common humanity are always there. To be able to participate in this book club, where there are people younger than Campbell, people who are middle-aged, people who are older, all discussing the fundamental human issues that are in these great works of literature, I think it’s pretty inspiring.

Columbia College is celebrating the centennial of the Core Curriculum in the 2019–20 academic year.