I still remember the book all the incoming freshmen had to read at my college (it was Octavia Butler’s Kindred — in retrospect, a sign that my college was going to be pretty cool). The idea for these programs is to give students a common intellectual touchstone to chat about in classes, or while waiting in line at the cafeteria. But freshman reading can also be a litmus test for how a school sees itself. Do they prefer the hard-hitting to the feel-good? Are they nervous about assigning students anything that looks too much like work? Our analysis of local universities’ summer reading picks — and what they say about the universities themselves — is below:

Johns Hopkins – The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. This is pretty much a classic Hopkins pick:  science-y enough for the pre-meds, with plenty of human interest and some deep public health questions thrown in for good measure. Students are asked to write an (optional) essay about the book; the best one wins an iPad.

University of Maryland (College Park) – The Influencing Machine, by Brooke Gladstone. At first glance, this book hardly looks like homework — hey, it’s got pictures! But Gladstone uses the brand-new graphic journalism format to delve into the history of the media. It’s a book that’s sure to make people want to argue — which is, in fact, the point:  “Our community is stronger when we are free to challenge one another and to listen respectfully. The University does not shy away from challenging or controversial issues; on the contrary, free and spirited speech is at the heart of an academic community,” writes Donna Hamilton, dean of undergraduate studies, on the program’s website.

UMBC – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Sorry, UMBC, but didn’t you get the message? This was everyone’s assigned summer reading last year. Still, it remains a classic pick thanks to its Baltimore focus, pointed criticism of health disparities, and immensely readable prose.

Goucher College – An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen (adapted by Arthur Miller). Goucher’s got a cool thing going here:  not only will first-year students read and discuss the play, which touches on questions of majority rule and social conformity, but they’ll get to discuss it with Kwame Kwei-Armah, the dreamy/brilliant playwright and actor who’s currently serving a artistic director of Center Stage. Kwei-Armah is staging a production of the play this year, and Goucher students will have a chance to watch a dress rehearsal and ask Kwei-Armah about his choices in staging the production.