Book Day returns with a bang: Planning, assemblies, and engagement  


Eliana Son/Staff Artist

Oliver Konopko and Madeleine Offit

Can AI-generated artwork replace the work of human creators? Does Chat GPT write reliable essays? Where does one draw the line between technology and magic? Does free will exist? These are just some of the questions Ted Chiang, author of “Story of Your Life and Others,” covered in Wednesday’s Book Day assembly. After a three-year hiatus due to Covid-19, Book Day returned this Wednesday with creative workshops, lively discussions, and opening and closing assemblies inspired by Chiang’s book. 

Stories of Your Life and Others is an award-winning collection of eight short stories, covering topics ranging from religion to technology to medicine.   

Ben Rafal/Photo Director

The Book Day Planning Committee – consisting of Upper Division (UD) faculty members and students – started the official planning process for Book Day in September, but first discussed the event last year, tenth grade dean and Book Day Committee chair Dr. Susan Groppi said. Last year, the committee focused mainly on whether or not Book Day would happen and what changes, if any, would be made to its structure, she said.

In September, the committee began meeting to choose the book, Groppi said. The selection process began with book proposals from committee members, which included a general summary and a few sample chapters from each book. English teacher Dr. Jonathan Kotchian was the one who proposed “Stories of Your Life and Others,” Groppi said.

During the selection process, the committee discussed a book’s readability, relevance to the school community, and the author’s public speaking skills, Groppi said. Because of its short story format and thought-provoking themes, “Stories of Your Life and Others” stood out as a clear front-runner, she said. “We thought it was the kind of book a Horace Mann student would love to dive into and look at from different angles.” 

The committee’s main goal was to ensure that students had fun, UD librarian and Book Day Committee chair Susannah Goldstein said. “For so long, Book Day was a day when Horace Mann students came together and had a great time,” she said. “You get to do creative, innovative thinking and have fun while doing it, and we wanted to bring that back.” 

The opening assembly started with an interview-style video by Charles Ampah (11) that investigated students’ opinions on science and was followed by an experimental short play by the Theatre Ensemble Seminar, Jah’si Eyre (11) said. The class based their performance on an interview in which Chiang discussed the process of adapting Story of Your Life and Others into the movie Arrival. The ensemble’s performance incorporated aspects of the interview, such as tone, lighting, and language, he said.

After the performances, Chiang took the stage to deliver his keynote address, following a short introduction by Emily Sun (12). Chiang’s speech centered around his thoughts about Arthur C. Clarke’s statement that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While this principle is generally taken as a fact, the statement categorizes anything people don’t fully understand, including smartphones, as magic, Chiang said.

Chiang delved into this idea, outlining the differences between science fiction and fantasy. “If I’m told that a phenomenon is dependent on the practitioner, that tends to make me think it’s magic. Magic only works for people who are born with an innate gift or who are morally pure,” he said.

“None of these things are true for scientific phenomena. When you pass a magnet through a coil of wire, electric current flows. No matter who you are.”

Zach Montbach (11) found Chiang’s distinction between fantasy and science fiction to be eye opening, he said. “As far as we know, we live in a mechanistic universe, and so saying the existence of a mechanism is the difference between fantasy and science fiction is a new distinction for me,” he said. “You can enjoy and appreciate fantasy books regardless, but now it’s clear what the difference is.”

After Chiang’s speech, the assembly shifted to a Q&A format, where Chiang discussed the difference between free will and determinism, centering the conversation around compatibilism. “Compatibilism says that the most meaningful definition of free will requires determinism,” he said. Compatibilism states that peoples’ decisions are based on their life experiences, meaning that all decisions are influenced by what a person has learned, read, and lived through, Chiang said.

James Kapadia (10) enjoyed learning about compatibilism, especially since he has been thinking about free will often recently, he said. “I’ve always wondered how we could accept free will without acknowledging that some things were out of our control,” he said. “Hearing Chiang’s explanation verbalized and clarified what I was thinking and allowed me to better understand free will.”

After the assembly, students participated in a variety of different workshops, Montbach said. These workshops ranged from “Scientific Innovation: Do the Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few?”, which explored different schools of ethical thought, to Horace Mann Chefs United for the Culture Club’s Sci-Fi Cake Pop workshop, in which participants baked alien shaped cake pops. 

Ben Rafal/Photo Director

The day ended with another assembly where Chiang and James Grimmelmann ‘95, a professor of digital and information law at Cornell University, engaged in a panel-style discussion. The conversation focused on how Chat GPT and machine intelligence function within our society — a topic Chiang does not cover in “Stories of Your Life and Others” but has covered in other texts, such as his op-ed “The Life Cycle of Software Objects and ChatGPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web,Molly Goldsmith (11) said.

Chiang and Grimmelmann discussed the relationship between Chat GTP and the “autocomplete” feature on most electronic devices. “Chat GPT is essentially autocomplete on steroids,” Chiang said. Most AI technology, like Chat GPT, responds to given prompts or inputs by filling in blanks based on what is statistically or grammatically likely to follow — making it often unreliable, he said. 

The conversation then turned to the potential uses for Chat GPT in the classroom. Chiang used weightlifting as an analogy to explain the importance of writing essays. “School is a weight room for a sport you don’t yet know you will be playing,” he said. “You lift weights even though you can have a forklift do it for you.”    


* students chose to remain anonymous to not offend the Book Day Comittee 

Despite the opportunity for an intellectually stimulating learning experience beyond a typical school day, 88 UD students chose to stay home — with 12 students unexcused. “I have lots of other things to do and I could really use this free day to catch up on my work” Sylvester* said. Other students expressed stronger opinions regarding Book Day. “I think it’s a waste of time when it’s not a requirement to graduate,” Karl* said. “I didn’t want to waste my day listening to assemblies.” 

A quarter of the students read the book in its entirety. In a recent anonymous Record poll with 194 respondents, 40% read none of the book, while 35% of students read between 1-5 stories. About half of the students who read the book enjoyed it (49%), while the other half (51%) said that they did not enjoy the book. 

Students had various reasons for opting to not read the book. “I don’t like short stories,” Gus* said. “I like reading a whole novel.”

Others said they didn’t have time to read the book. “I just chose to read a short summary of the book on SparkNotes,” Ricky* said. 

To many students, such as Goldsmith, the book was an exciting new read. Goldsmith appreciated the book’s structure, as short stories cover many different topics, she said. Chiang’s creative writing and subtle nuances made the book difficult to read at times, but intellectually rewarding, she said.

Goldsmith loved hearing the wide range of opinions students had during the workshops, she said. Many workshops didn’t directly connect to the book but focused on more tangential concepts that the book didn’t address. “I went to a workshop led by the Feminists Student Association, and we talked about beauty standards, particularly about how the book didn’t mention how they connect to race,” she said. “Everybody was really involved in the conversation.”

Book Day allows students to explore the many ways that learning happens, Goldstein said.  While other schools have community book programs, very few are on the scale of Book Day.  “It’s famous in the library world and is seen as a program that is a signature of Horace Mann.  Many librarians across the country have learned from Horace Mann how to create similar programs, but none of them are quite as large. It’s an incredibly special thing to get to do and to have the whole school’s support.”