Has a book influenced your life? To celebrate National Library Week, April 13-19, ...
... we asked several individuals on campus to comment on their choices for a book that influenced their life. Below are their personal reflections, which you may find illuminating, compelling, poignant and even humorous. Read on.
Presidential Power by Richard Neustadt
John R. Johannes
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Dick Neustadt was a youngish Columbia professor in the fifties and early sixties (he subsequently moved to Harvard, where he taught from the mid-sixties through the early nineties), having come to academic life after serving in several roles in Washington. He was a student of the U.S. presidency but found that academic studies of the presidency were either historical or legal in nature, or merely described the offices and powers of the president. He set out, in the late fifties, to write a "how to" book on the presidency, focusing on the actual -- as opposed to formal -- powers of the man in the White House.
He explored decisions by Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, concluding that the real power of the president was nothing more than the power to persuade, a "power" built upon three pillars: a president's formal authority, his public prestige and his reputation in Washington. Some called Neustadt's book a new version of Machiavelli's Prince, but in reality it was less prescriptive than analytic and descriptive of reality. It certainly had an impact, and not only in political science.
When John F. Kennedy was running for the presidency, he read Neustadt's book and was instantly affected. He summoned Neustadt to serve as an advisor during the transition period between the election and inauguration, and the rest, as they say, is history. Neustadt subsequently served as counselor to several presidents.
I read Neustadt's book as a college senior doing an independent readings course and found it to be an amazing work. Neustadt was one reason I went to Harvard for graduate school, and I relished the opportunity to take two courses from "the master himself." He and his book shaped my academic career, at least in its early stages.
I never had the chance to do my doctoral dissertation under Neustadt -- which, strangely, turned out to be fortunate because I linked up with another wonderful professor who remained a good friend throughout his life. But Neustadt's book has been influential in my thinking ever since -- and reading his book certainly got me interested in the relations between the president and Congress, a field I explored for many years.
Presidential Power (subsequently published in later editions) is a classic book that I still recommend to students as one that had both academic and "real world" political impact -- not to mention its personal effect on me.
The library copy of Presidential Power is currently at the reserve desk (JK516.N4)
Photograph by James Wasserman
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Mary Beth Simmons
Director, Villanova Writing Center
If you really want to hear about it, this nice lady at the library asked me to write about an influential book, so I won’t tell you about where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.
Just writing that sentence I feel the presence of Holden Caulfield, standing before me wearing his red hunting cap, giving me a cocky smirk that says, You are such a phony. A phony for half-plagiarizing the first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and for going on record for loving a much-loved book.
It was 1984 and most everyone at school was talking about going away to college, and what their majors would be, and where they were going to practice law or medicine, and I just knew I liked school, but didn’t want to be too vocal about it since I was a teacher’s kid and that would be so predictable if I talked too much about liking school and all. And getting all emotional over a major? No way.
So one snowy Saturday morning I get home from basketball practice that our creepy coach held at 6:30 a.m. and my mom was making breakfast like most moms do and I plopped down on the couch and on the coffee table was a big stack of books. (My mom, the librarian, was always doing stuff like that, putting books everywhere so my sister and I would pick them up instead of wasting time watching the stupid TV. Plus, she did her master’s thesis on how she didn’t think censorship was a good thing for libraries to practice, so she was always talking about banned books. She even went to Washington, D.C., once to talk about it in front of some Congressional hearing or something.)
I ate breakfast and lunch on that couch in the living room because I didn’t want to stop reading Catcher. (I felt close enough now, so the familiar one word title.) At dinner I announced I had just read the best book ever published and I thought I might be an English major when I entered the University of Iowa the following fall. It felt like one of the most unphony moments of my entire eighteen years, which is a long time if you think about it.
The Catcher in the Rye is available in Falvey (PS3537.A426 C3) and was mentioned in an earlier Compass article on Banned Books.
Photograph of Mary Beth and Atticus by Laura Cort
Kamouraska by Anne Hébert
Instructional Design Librarian
Kamouraska, “the place where rushes grow by the water,” is the name given by the Algonquin peoples to a little village on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, about 100 miles north of what would eventually become Quebec City. The village in turn lends its name to Canadian francophone writer Anne Hébert’s novel, set in the mid-nineteenth century and published in 1970, a book that became my obsession.
The story is not a happy one, but then neither was I at the time I discovered it, and soon I found myself bonding with the novel’s main character. Elisabeth d’Aulnières is an only child, but there ends any real-life similarity between us. She is educated by her three maiden aunts and married off at age 16 to the handsome but dissipated and brutal Antoine Tassy, seigneur of Kamouraska, who beats her when he is not off somewhere drinking and whoring.
Sickly and depressed after bearing two children in close succession, she returns to her childhood home and is placed under the care of an American doctor, George Nelson. Elisabeth is soon pregnant with George’s child and the lovers plot to murder Antoine. When the full horror of the crime he has committed dawns on him, George deserts Elisabeth, fleeing to Vermont. Elisabeth is tried for murder but acquitted for lack of evidence. To quell nasty rumors, she quickly remarries and assumes a respectable life producing a brood of children as the new Mme Jérôme Rolland. Then, 18 years later, sitting by Jérôme’s deathbed, her mind begins to unravel.
The narration abruptly shifts throughout the novel from third to first person as Elisabeth struggles to understand how she slowly shifted from victim to criminal. She and I were soon solid accomplices. In an act of rebellion and as an escape from a depression of my own, I read Kamouraska in French, reconnecting with my undergrad studies.
In the character of Elisabeth I also encountered for the first time a female literary voice that spoke with such compelling authenticity of the double life that so many women live. Hungry for more of the same, I quickly found and read two other books by French women authors: Les Mots pour le Dire, by Marie Cardinal, and La Femme Gelée, by Annie Ernaux.
It wasn’t long before I started plotting how to get my master’s in French.
Kamouraska is available at Falvey Library in the original French (PQ3919.H37K3 1982) and in English (PQ3919.H37K313).
Photograph by Chris Barr