Director's Watch: Of Books and Butterflies and One Book Villanova
The culminating event of the first One Book Villanova program, author Khaled Hosseini’s campus visit, occurred on February 7. His public lecture in the Pavilion drew an audience of approximately 4,000, including students, faculty, staff and many from the surrounding communities. The substantial turnout for this author's talk was especially gratifying since the Villanova-St. Joe’s men's basketball game took place just a short time later at the Palestra.
Alice Jung with Khaled Hosseini
The idea for One Book Villanova grew out of a chance conversation between Dr. Terry Nance, professor of communication and assistant vice president for Multicultural Affairs, and me, following a faculty book talk in the new library lounge. Librarians, no matter how strong their commitment to the digital age (and my personal investment in the digital transformation of libraries is unstinting), are believers in and keepers of books and book culture. This is something librarians have in common with many faculty members, and such is the case for Terry and me. We share a passionate conviction that books and ideas matter, not only to individuals, but also to the social contexts in which these individuals live and work together. Further, we each feel that we should be working hard to develop a climate at Villanova University that presents everyone on campus with opportunities to participate in public discourse about the pressing issues and questions of our time. That day we agreed that there’s probably no better way to do this than with a compelling book.
At a time when a recent National Endowment for the Arts study found that people, especially younger adults, are reading less for pleasure than even a decade ago, the time seemed ripe to promote a program that would make concrete for our students the value of books and reading to a thoughtful and fully-engaged life. Terry and I took on the task of making a “one book” program happen at Villanova, with few ideas for supporters or funding. It was an act of blind faith.
As we put forward to others on campus our proposal for the new program, the overall enthusiasm was inspiring. New partners emerged quickly, most notably Tom Mogan in Student Development, who expressed a commitment to the One Book vision that was at least as passionate as Terry’s and my own. Many other folks also joined in to make the program happen.
The Kite Runner was a fortunate choice for the inaugural year of One Book Villanova. This book clearly addresses the need people feel for a better understanding of Afghanistan, which has become important to us on the geopolitical stage in the post-9/11 era. Though a work of fiction, the book, through its gripping story of friendship and betrayal across social divisions, family secrets, guilt and atonement, and with its rich depictions of life in Kabul in the 1970s, immerses its readers in a reality that might otherwise elude our ken.
Through the course of the year’s One Book programming, I had a number of encounters that confirmed this. The first one came in late September during Parents Weekend, when Terry and I led an early morning discussion of the book with Villanova parents. About 80 showed up for this event, and there was a palpable excitement in the room as many in attendance shared their thoughts and reactions to the book and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to discuss it, with us and also with their children who would be reading it on campus in future months.
Later in the fall, I was at a committee meeting when a student there, a senior in Commerce & Finance, began talking excitedly about having just completed The Kite Runner. She related how amazing it was that the University had put this book into her hands, one that she might not otherwise have known about or read. She felt that the book had opened new worlds to her.
Finally, on the day of Dr. Hosseini’s talk, we sponsored a book signing in the library café and lounge. Over 300 arrived to have books signed, and of these at least 200 were Villanova undergraduates. One after another of these students approached Dr. Hosseini, book in hand, almost giddy with excitement that they were in his presence, many of them expressing delight and gratitude for the experience of reading The Kite Runner. A great number said that they had never been so moved by a novel. To see a book kindle such unmasked enthusiasm among young adults in this digital age indicated to me that the idealistic vision Terry and I shared in that very same space over a year ago had taken on substantial reality. What a great beginning!
I titled this essay “Books and Butterflies” for a reason. Many have probably heard of the “butterfly effect,” which comes from dynamic systems / chaos theory. Adapted as cultural metaphor, the butterfly effect means that very small actions, such as the flight of a butterfly in a current of wind, can have large and often unpredictable consequences in the development of much larger, later events: a weather system, for instance, might take a different track depending on where that butterfly floats.
Books can be butterflies: little perturbances that later change lives. This week, for instance, we had the noted Ralph Ellison scholar John Callahan speak in the Library as part of a series of events for Black History Month. Callahan shared a personal anecdote about encountering Ellison’s The Invisible Man as a 19-year old undergraduate at Holy Cross and reading it through the night in a single sitting. Callahan went on to become a scholar and critic but did not pursue study of Ellison’s work right away.
Years later, following a circuitous path, his life become connected with Ellison’s, when he sent Ellison a brief essay. They became close friends, and eventually Callahan took on the role of literary executor for the Ellison estate. All of that was the unintended consequence of one night with a great book.
I like to imagine that somewhere at Villanova a student has been similarly enthralled by The Kite Runner and that one day his or her life path will be similarly changed.
Joe Lucia is University Librarian and director of Falvey Memorial Library. Photograph by Tom Mogan