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Skidmore College

Hamid’s Exit West will open doors for first-year students

June 7, 2018
by Peter MacDonald

Each summer since 2005, Skidmore first-year students have been asked by the Office of the First-Year Experience to read a book selected by a faculty selection committee. Individually mailed to students, thanks to the generosity of James and Susan Towne, each book examines a pressing global or local issue or value in which all of the 40+ FYE Scribner Seminars can engage through discussions, speakers and more.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Image by Penguin Random House

The summer reading for the Class of 2022 is Exit West, the latest novel by bestselling Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid. (For a list of the previous summer reading selections, see below.)

Selected by professors Lia Ball (Chemistry), Ben Bogin (Asian Studies) and Leslie Mechem (Classics), in cooperation with FYE Director and English professor Janet Casey, Exit West follows two young lovers from an unnamed country as they make the difficult decision to leave a war zone in search of a better life. 

But their escape mechanism has a fantastical element: They are transported from their homeland, and later move across the globe, through secret doors known only to migrants. Passing through each door is an exercise in both desperation and courage, since there is no way to know in advance where one might end up.

Ball says she and her peers chose Exit West because:

  • It deals with current events involving refugees, migration, borders, political crisis, war, and technology.
  • Touches on themes that many students can relate to, such as family, independence, romantic relationships, change, finding a community, and loss.
  • Exposes students to several cultures and contexts with which many of them may be less familiar.
  • Possesses beautiful prose and vivid images.
  • And because students (and everyone else) will really enjoy reading it!

"We chose Exit West because the topics are relevant and the characters relatable," said Leslie Mechem, lecturer of Classics. "We hope it will spur engaging discussions among students and the community and provide avenues for understanding some of the issues we deal with daily." 

“Exit West is a warning against the assumption that the end of the world will leave rich, western countries unscathed,” Sophie Gilbert writes in her review in the Atlantic.

“When it comes to the future, [Hamid] posits, we will all be migrants, whether we hop from country to country or stay in one place until the day we die. Either way, the world can become unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.”

But this development is not without hope. Writes Viet Thanh Nguyen in his New York Times review, "After the natives get over their initial fear of strangers, both the natives and the strangers discover they are just as likely to get along as not. … This gentle optimism, this refusal to descend into dystopia, is what is most surprising about Hamid’s imaginative, inventive novel.”

Exit West appeared on numerous lists of best books for 2017 and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Recently, it won the inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize (linked to the Aspen Institute), awarded to “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.”

In connection with Exit West, the 2018 FYE lecture will be delivered on September 10 by Rania Matar, a Lebanese-born photographer who has worked extensively with adolescent female refugees. Recently awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, Matar intends to draw connections between her photography and Hamid’s novel while also considering broadly the artistic response to humanitarian concerns.

FYE Summer Reading Selections over the Years

  • 2017: The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation, Randall Fuller
  • 2016: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • 2015: Einstein's Dreams, Alan Lightman
  • 2014: What Money Can't Buy, Michael Sandel
  • 2013: The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, Wes Moore
  • 2012: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo
  • 2011: A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
  • 2010: Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body, Neil Shubin
  • 2009: “Serenade/The Proposition,” DVD from the Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Dance Company, and Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, edited by Eric Foner
  • 2008: “A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina,”Terence Blanchard soundtrack, and a related mix of readings that speak to the various themes associated with Hurricane Katrina
  • 2007: Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder
  • 2006: Life on the Color Line, Gregory Howard Williams
  • 2005: The Burial at Thebes, Seamus Heany


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