The power of reading: VU selects influential books
The Book That Influenced My Life
Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., University President
The Little Engine That Could
The book that influenced my life is The Little Engine That Could, the classic children’s story by Watty Piper, about optimism and perseverance with its famous phrase, “I Think I Can, I Think I Can.” This book may not seem very academic, but it has a deep personal connection to who I am.
When I was five years old, my younger sister Denise contracted a virus that left her mentally retarded and paralyzed on her left side. For a year, my mother and I traveled to Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit to work with Denise and the staff on her therapy. It is a vivid memory for me: being in the hospital and playing games with Denise that utilized speech and physical activities. I became her companion, playmate and an assistant to the therapists. Her favorite story was The Little Engine That Could, and my mother read it to us almost every day.
As the years went by, The Little Engine That Could remained Denise’s favorite story, and I continued to read it to her. I did not know then that this simple story would stay with me my whole life.
Dr. Nancy Kelley, Director, Academic Learning Communities, Villanova Center for Liberal Education
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
As far as my mother was concerned, eating my vegetables and reading a book were accorded the same critical status on her parental registry of “must do.” Almost weekly she took me to the local library to get out books, and I can remember her offering me a financial reward of a dollar if I read the first 100 pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, gambling that Mark Twain would induce me to finish the story (which he did).
So the charge to write about “the” book which most touched my life was more difficult than I had thought. During those early years, I drifted more toward the clever and independent super sleuth Nancy Drew series, as opposed to the classics my mother selected for me, but claiming that The Mystery of the Tolling Bell influenced my life was going to be a stretch.
In 1963, when I was about to enter high school, I was surprised to see on my first required summer reading list a book entitled Silent Spring by an unknown Rachel Carson next to Dickens’ Great Expectations and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Up to that point, insects and birds were of little note to me, but ever since I have held a genuine reverence for their vital role in the earth’s life cycle. For that I owe my ninth grade biology teacher, who insisted that Carson's be a required book, a debt of gratitude, but it would be pious for me to say that Silent Spring made me a pioneer in environmental issues.
In college I became a devoted fan of my history professor, John Lukacs, and read everything he wrote, and even declared history as my major. (When I mentioned this to Jack Doody, he inquired why hadn’t Lukacs also made me a conservative!)
While this mental exercise of transversing my literary landscape was richly enjoyable, I still had not uncovered “the” book. Then it hit me! In 1973, when I was a young working mother who daily dropped off my first child at daycare (fortunately located on Bryn Mawr College’s campus), my older sister gave me a copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea. Without any role models, I regularly doubted my decision to continue to work, worrying that it would somehow damage my young son’s emotional life.
Bearing the demands of a home, a child, a job and a dissertation, I feared that I could not do it all well, or even at all. Lindbergh’s writing was a beacon; it showed me the gentle way through the maze of responsibilities I held. My favorite chapter has always been “The Channeled Whelk,” where Lindbergh, after a long contemplation, writes, “ I can only carry back my channeled whelk. It will sit on my desk…to remind me of the ideal of a simplified life. …To ask how little, not how much, can I get along with. To say - is it necessary? – when I am tempted to add one more accumulation to my life, when I am pulled toward one more centrifugal activity.”
For the last 34 years, Gift from the Sea has remained on my night table and a channeled whelk on my desk at school. Gift from the Sea is the book which has transformed my life by giving me the courage, grace and reflection to live it as a professional, wife and mother.
John Kurtz, associate professor, psychology department
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Like most college professors, I read for a living, and I am influenced continually by new research studies and theoretical developments in my field (psychology). But, there is no book I can point to that inspired my interest in psychology. I wanted to be a writer long before I discovered psychology as an undergraduate, and I recall several books from my early years that inspired my interest in writing.
After reading James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl in the third grade, I became determined to write a book myself. The writing was clever, the story was imaginative and it was full of subtle humor. I did write several books in grade school; some of them were strikingly similar to James and the Giant Peach. I still want to write a book, but it’s a safe bet that it will be non-fiction. Time revises our dreams.
When I was in high school, an older friend who had gone off to college challenged me to read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. The writing is beautiful, which is all the more remarkable in that the version I read was an English translation. I wondered what it would be like to read it in the original Spanish. Each long paragraph in this unusual book is a self-contained story, and yet it all coheres into one epic saga. My wife tells me that Oprah has recently put this title on her list. Do not let that dissuade you from reading it!
Joe Lucia, University Librarian and Director of Falvey Memorial Library
Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity by Gregory Bateson
Bateson’s Mind and Nature is one of those books that came along at a moment when I somehow needed it without understanding fully why. I was in my early 20s, between stints in graduate school, and I was trying to make some sense of the various domains that interested me. I was thinking a lot about thinking and, as an aspiring poet, struggling to frame an understanding of the relationship between rational thought and imagination, cognition and creativity, empirical inquiry and aesthetics. Mind and Nature provided me with a conceptual vocabulary that at once situated my personal reflections in a wider context while also giving me terms with which to better articulate the issues that at the time felt so urgent to me.
The passing of youth brings with it the diminution of those intellectual urgencies, but the power of Bateson’s unique synthesis of epistemology, information theory, evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology and a myriad of other disciplines presented me with an abiding model of what it means to think creatively in manner that brings together several distinct perspectives to provide compelling answers to complex questions. His claim about the degree to which a narrative of “thought” is embedded within natural forms remains a compelling way of thinking ecologically at historical moments when it is more pressing than ever before that we learn to do just that.
Compiled by Laura Hutelmyer, Jacqueline Mirabile and Judy Olsen