All the Presidents’ Books

June 24, 2003 | By Mark Clayton

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They are different from you and me.”

Well, college presidents are a breed apart, too, and especially so in summer, when it comes to enjoying the riches of reading.

While the rest of the world munches on the book-world equivalent of snack food, these literary connoisseurs use their summer months to voraciously consume quantities of the very best—the steak tartare of current literature—lightly sprinkled with a few classics.

Like professors, whose reading lists the Monitor explored last summer, college presidents are an unusual subculture. Their tastes are just as omnivorous and eclectic as professors, but with an even stronger tilt toward nonfiction and biographies.

Mammoth-selling potboilers, as a rule, are literati non grata. Harry Potter? No thanks. How about a hyper- kinetic Tom Clancy novel? Sorry. Hillary’s book? Perhaps, but only for its historical value—and not until summer is over and the fad has died down.

An unscientific Monitor survey of the summer reading lists of 48 of America’s college and university presidents from 20 states—a third of them women—may provide the impulse, perhaps even inspiration, to seek out more and better books to read this summer.

Survey results showed a natural bias toward books about university life, such as “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” by Neil Howe and William Strauss. Several presidents read books that explain science in layman’s terms, such as Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

On the whole, though, college presidents’ summer picks seem to be a cream- skimming exercise, which means their choices are rarely the most current books out there. A few include bestsellers. But their summer picks are most notable for the many titles that don’t naturally spring from the lips, but should.

A few presidents do admit that, in all honesty, their tastes sometimes tip in summer even to popular fiction. But Kermit Hall is not one of those.

“I like to read a book every other week” during the school year, writes the president of Utah State University in Logan via e-mail.

But during his summer break he shifts into overdrive, charging through five fat tomes in two weeks while relaxing on Captiva Island off Florida’s coast, flipping pages on a screened-in porch with gulf breezes.

His recent travels to South Africa influenced his list this summer, which includes: “A History of South Africa” by Leonard Thompson, a scholarly work. That balances the more subjective and popular, “My Traitor’s Heart” by Rian Malan, a personal account of apartheid, he says.

“I don’t feel the need to be a prisoner to the latest book on the hottest topic,” Dr. Hall says in a phone interview. “The point of the exercise is not to impress. I’m just trying to create this little world of insight and understanding—and, to be honest, it’s entertainment.”

He’ll also be prowling through “The Rise of the Creative Class,” by Richard Florida and eating his vegetables with “How Democratic Is the American Constitution?” by Robert Dahl, a Yale professor of history.

Literarily Starved

A key problem for college presidents is that they have even less free-reading time than professors—time to venture beyond volumes of required reading and budgets. So when summer arrives, they are literarily starved, with a backlog of carefully vetted picks recommended by faculty and friends over the year just waiting to be gobbled up.

Nancy Vickers was once a professor of comparative literature, but for the past decade has held the top spot at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Her list includes five novels, two of them by faculty, as well as a nonfiction work.

She will soon be flipping pages and glancing at the sea from the deck chair of a cruise ship sailing the coasts of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland to Copenhagen. First on her list is “The Corrections,” a dark comedy about a dysfunctional Midwestern family by Jonathan Franzen, a contender for the Book Critics Circle prize in 2001.

Other literary delicacies she’s carted along include “Baudolino” by Umberto Eco, the adventures of a good-hearted 12th century Italian peasant in an age of court intrigue, crusades, and rival popes.

She also plans to read “When the Emperor Was Divine,” by Julie Otsuka, the story of a Japanese-American family’s internment in Utah during World War II.

And there’s “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich, who worked as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, and Wal-Mart salesclerk at $6 or $7 an hour—and then wrote about life at that income level.

“This is not light reading,” admits Dr. Vickers of the Ehrenreich book. “What she’s really asking is how the working poor survive in America, which strikes me as a really critical question to be talking about. Yes, it’s pleasure reading, but it’s also intellectually intriguing.”

The way books are selected varies greatly. Many presidents rely heavily on faculty for recommendations. Some keep lists. Others pull one together just before their break.

But Hermann Viets, president of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, counts on his family for summer picks.

His summer reading includes “The Portable Curmudgeon” by Jon Winokur; “Circles: Fifty Roundtrips Through History Technology Science Culture” by historian James Burke; and “The Metamorphosis and Other Stories” by Franz Kafka.

“Kafka could have been the Stephen King of his generation,” Dr. Viets observes in a phone interview. “It’s a collection of his darker stories—perfect for reading in the sunlight on our porch on the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan.”

It turns out, too, that a number of college presidents like to sail—and that’s where they like to read, too. Gordon Haaland, president of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, is navigating off the East Coast—and through “Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia” by Steve and Linda Dashew.

Another sailing president is Lawrence Bacow, of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who just got back from eight days sailing in Greece. During the trip, he figures he was “burning through four or five” books a week, including “Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II,” by Jennet Conant. But he also has a semiembarrassing admission to make: He read a John Grisham novel on the trip.

“I ran out of books and we were on a little island, Paros, in the Aegean Sea,” he explains, “and there was a bookstore with limited number of English language books. That’s where I picked up the Grisham.”

Actually, truth be told, he isn’t the only president who confesses to reading the occasional bestselling light fiction. Richard Warch, president of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., too, is reading Bryson’s “Short History of Nearly Everything.” But he also fesses up to reading Elmore Leonard’s “When the Women Come Out to Dance: Stories” and a novel, “The Gardens of Kyoto” by Kate Walbert.

It turns out he’s in good company. Mr. Hall, the Utah State University president, also feels the need to counterbalance more cerebral tomes with something else. He can’t bring himself to prowl pulp fiction, so he’s committed to Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” suggested by his wife, herself a voracious reader.

“She’s been following me around, shaking it at me, saying, ‘This is what McDonald’s is doing to the world,’ so I promised her I would read it,” he says. Others delve more deeply into popular fiction.

Gordon Gee, president of Vanderbilt University, lists four books about universities and the future of higher education.

But he also dares to list “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth in the series by J.K. Rowling.

Yes, Harry Potter did sneak onto the lists of several literary cognoscenti after all. Along with reading eight other heavyweights, Nannerl Keohane, president of Duke University in Durham, N.C., writes that she expects to read the young wizard’s latest exploits to “keep up with my grandchildren.”

When ‘Just Say No’ Fails

But others are adopting a just-say-no policy toward Harry. “There are some books I tend not to read, including management books and books on leadership,” says Dr. Bacow of Tufts. “Harry Potter is not on my list, either.”

Regardless of what they choose, most are willing to squeeze in reading at odd times and places.

“I read anywhere and everywhere,” John Roush, president of Centre College in Danville, Ky., writes via e-mail. “Most of [my summer reading] will occur at home, late at night. It keeps me up. It doesn’t put me to sleep.”

Ron Charles, the Monitor’s book editor, contributed to this report.

From Harry Potter to Hillary

Due to space constraints, only a sampling of the four dozen presidents who submitted summer reading lists appears below. Apologies to those not listed and thanks to all participants.

Gregory Prince Jr.
Hampshire College, Amherst, Mass.

The Gangster We Are All Looking For
by Le Thi Diem Thuy

Heart, You Bully, You Punk
by Leah Hager Cohen

School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School
by Edward Humes

Nora Bell
Hollins University, Roanoke, Va.

Storming Heaven: A Novel
by Denise Giardina

My Losing Season
by Pat Conroy

Nannerl Keohane
Duke University, Durham, N.C.

The Quiet American
by Graham Greene

Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools
by Jonathan Kozol

Oryx and Crake
by Margaret Atwood

Gordon Gee
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.

Beyond the Crossroads
by James Duderstadt, et al

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by J.K. Rowling

Carol Christ
Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

Ayala’s Angel
by Anthony Trollope, Flo Gibson

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay
by Nancy Milford

Death of a Red Heroine
by Qiu Xiaolong

Robert Maxson
California State, Long Beach, Calif.

Living History
by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Hook Has Gone Before
by Tony Horwitz

Joanne Creighton
Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.

The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver

Getting Mother’s Body
by Suzan-Lori Parks