March 2021 News Perspective Online Top Story

Letter from the Dean: March 2021

At the Bolin Family Scholarship Evening program on February 16, many members of the Perkins community heard New York Times columnist David Brooks offer his thoughts on the past year. He started with the question, “How can we repair a society that’s become pretty broken?” He explored the question through the concept of Bildung – a German word for “the complete moral, intellectual, and civic formation of a person.”

Many factors contribute to a person’s formation – such as one’s geographic origins, faith upbringing, and educational background. Historically, many universities have viewed this kind of character formation as their first and foremost priority. Brooks believes that focus has been lost as educational institutions become more and more vocationally oriented.

At the end of his talk, I had the opportunity to ask Brooks a few questions. He earlier stated that he had been a “bookish” youth, so I asked, “What are you reading now?”  His off-the-cuff choices offered a revealing glimpse into his wide-ranging interests that have made him a prominent national thought leader.

I love to read widely, too. It expands my thinking beyond my own professional niche and even beyond the walls of the academy. Reading exposes me to people, experiences, history, and ideas that I might not otherwise encounter. It is one of the most enriching practices I know.

So, in the spirit of that evening, here are half a dozen books I’ve read in the recent past and strongly recommend:

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
David Blight, Simon and Schuster: 2018

This Pulitzer Prize winning biography is, simply put, one of the best books I have ever read. I am from Springfield, Illinois, home of Abraham Lincoln, and as a consequence have worked my way through dozens of books on 19th-century American history. Nevertheless, there is a great deal in Blight’s masterful account of which I was unaware, not only concerning Douglass, who deservedly ranks as one of the greatest Americans, but also about his times. The book is by turns informative, challenging, and inspiring. I can’t imagine anyone not benefitting from it.

Ron Chernow, Penguin: 2018

Speaking of outstanding recent biographies of 19th-century American leaders written by Pulitzer Prize winning authors… Ron Chernow, author of the acclaimed Alexander Hamilton (which inspired the musical), has written the definitive biography of one of the America’s most accomplished, under-appreciated, and unlikely generals and presidents. I confess to having a personal interest in Grant. My great grandfather came from Canada to fight under Grant in the American Civil War. The only memento I have of him is a copy of the newspaper from Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, which he picked up that day and handed down through the family. Reading Grant, I felt that I was also getting to know a bit more of my own ancestor’s story. Grant, by the way, was the basis for the recent History Channel miniseries produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010
Charles Murray, Crown Forum, 2013

I have been fascinated with studies of changing American culture since reading Robert Putnam’s seminal Bowling Alone. Murray’s analysis of the increasing class and social divide in the U.S. overlaps a great deal with points made in the recent David Brooks talk. Indeed, Brooks himself wrote in the New York Times concerning Coming Apart, “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.”  The core thesis is sobering if not surprising:  the U.S. is increasingly looking like two separate countries split along lines demarcated by education and wealth. One of the important takeaways from each of these studies concerns the vital role of the local church as one of the few remaining “middle institutions” that can bridge this gap—but only if it works to do so.

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship
Father Gregory Boyle, Simon & Schuster: 2018

Barking is the follow up to Boyle’s incredible first book Tattoos on the Heart. If you haven’t read Tattoos, start there. If you have, you will want to read Barking, which offers more of what makes that first book so wonderful. For those who don’t know, Boyle is a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world. One reviewer called Boyle’s books both “incandescent” and “humorous.” Another describes this as “A spiritual masterpiece touching the innermost sanctum of the human soul.” I couldn’t agree more.

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
Father Richard Rohr, Jossey-Bass: 2011

My favorite book by the prolific Roman Catholic author Richard Rohr, Falling Upward is similar in many ways to David Brooks’s own The Second Mountain, about which Brooks spoke at last year’s Bolin Family Lecture. Both books deal with the fact that most of us spend much of our life striving to establish a career and an identity. Often as not, that quest leaves us dissatisfied or even broken. What comes after that, the upward or “second mountain” portion of one’s life, is what matters most. Brooks elsewhere describes it as the difference between creating resume virtues and obituary virtues. Or, as Rohr put it in an interview on, “First half of life preoccupations won’t get you into the great picture, the big picture, which Jesus would call the Reign of God.” As one well into life’s second half, I found both books greatly thought provoking.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Daniel James Brown, Penguin: 2014

Knowing I had rowed while a student at Christ Church College, Oxford, several people have recommended this book to me over the years, but I only got around to reading it recently. I am an easy mark for an underdog true-life story, and this is one of the best. I have participated in a number of sports over the years (and have the surgeries to prove it), but none comes close to rowing for its physical difficulty and – during those magical moments when everything clicks –its Zen-like quality, both of which The Boys in the Boat captures beautifully. Whether you’ve ever sat in a scull or “caught a crab”[1] (which, I can say from experience, is absurdly easy to do!), if you’re looking for an enjoyable and inspirational read, you won’t be disappointed by Brown’s can-do masterpiece.

You can read more about David Brooks’ talk, and see his eclectic reading list, here.

[1] Having an oar caught in the water when moving the blade backwards. It costs the boat a great deal of its momentum, which likely also costs it the race.