Convocation 2009

Before we begin, there are a few people that I need to thank.

I want to thank the chair of Occidental's Board of Trustees, Dennis Collins (I name him if only so that later there will be some guilt by association), and the chair of the Search Committee, John Farmer (He's guilty too); and my vice presidents, who are accessories after the fact. I want to especially thank Bill Tingley and his staff in Admissions, without whom you would not be sitting here today. I think we can all agree that they are people of tremendous insight and perceptiveness. After all, they chose you. I want to thank Rozita Afar, who runs the president's office (and from what I've seen thus far, the world); Wendy Clifford, who organized this magnificent event today; and individual faculty members with whom I've talked to at length already: Raul Villa, Gretchen North, Mary Christianakis, John Swift, and Movindri Reddy (all of whom served on the search committee), Bob Gottlieb, Regina Freer, Woody Studenmund, John Hafner, Irene Girton, Amy Lyford, Mary Beth Heffernan, Wellington Chan, Nina Gelbart, Linda Lyke, Martha Matsuoka, Derek Shearer, Phoebe Dea, Dan Fineman, David Axeen, Lynn Dumenil, Peter Dreier, Xiao-Huang Yin (with whom I went to graduate school) and Alicia Gonzalez (with whom I grew up). You have all been unfailingly gracious and patient with your new president as I fumble toward a deeper understanding of this great institution.

I want to especially thank Linda Lyke, who has been working very hard on a commission for the inauguration, which promises to be quite stunning. I also want to thank my wife Sarah who worked tirelessly throughout a muggy New York summer to get us all here safe and sound, and on an even psychological keel. I want to thank Lenore and Peter Mott, Sarah's mother and father, who greeted the news of our departure from New York with the same love and steadfast support they have shown from the very beginning, and my sister Jonna and my mother, Carol Lee, who have been waiting patiently for our return for a long time.

And to the rest of you gathered here today: Members of the Board, Richard Gilman (Occidental's 10th president); and most especially the class of 2013. I have now met each and everyone of you in my office. And I have met many of your parents. It was a pleasure. Welcome and congratulations.

Today, I want to talk to the incoming freshmen and transfer students about an activity that will occupy a good portion of your time while you are at Occidental. Indeed, I hope it will become an overriding obsession of yours (if it isn't already). I am talking about reading. And what I want to do today-on the occasion of this Convocation-is provide a full-throated advocacy for its protocols, demands, and most of all, its many pleasures.

In The History of Reading -- a book I recommend to you (the first of many books that my colleagues and I will recommend to you) -- Alberto Manguel talks about his obsession with and pleasure in reading that includes not just books but "notices, advertisements, the small type on the back of tramway tickets, letters tossed into the garbage, weathered newspapers, caught under [his] bench in the park, graffiti, the back covers of magazines held by other readers in the bus."

My own obsession with reading includes many of the things that Manguel mentions and some he doesn't, including cereal boxes, maps of all kinds, flyers on the kiosks of college campuses, the assorted magazines lying around in doctors' offices, and once upon a time, my sister's diary. I have not quite developed the same passion for memos (of which I receive many), directions to unassembled toys and furniture, and registration forms (which always seem to require information I don't have on hand), but I am open to persuasion.

Reading cereal boxes is just a hobby. (Though you can learn a surprising amount about slight differences in the amounts of micronutrients like riboflavin between say Cheerios and Lucky Charms). My real obsession is, as you might have guessed, reserved for books. Ever since I was old enough to think, books have dominated my imagination. In fact, for me, thinking and reading have always been inseparable. And my guess is that if you polled the faculty in this hall, it would be the one thing that they/we all have in common. We have all built our lives around reading -- intensely, obsessively -- and with some degree of sacrifice.

That is no small thing in a culture that has little time for the qualities that a life of reading cultivates: deliberation, an appreciation for complexity, a tolerance for ambiguity, a keen sense of humility before that which one does not know (and there is so much that one does not know, it is sometimes dispiriting). We live in a culture in which we get everything in quick sound bites or rapid cinematic cuts, all readily digestible, none of it terribly challenging, presented with a patronizing desire to please in an effort to keep the wheels of commerce moving. Whatever institutions of higher learning are, they stand in profound opposition to all of that.

Let no one tell you, however, that college is an ivory tower. The dichotomy between life and reading is an artificial one encouraged by people who are afraid of ideas, or who simply don't understand them, who want simple solutions to complex problems. People who invoke the ivory tower employ that term to diminish what we do here. That is their loss. And insofar as we are at their mercy, ours. Reflection and action are inseparable. The world is found in books (disassembled, parsed, and put back together again in compelling new shapes and configurations). Just as we would not think of venturing into a new terrain without a map, it is equally unthinkable to venture into the world without books at our disposal.

I am brought to this discussion in part by my recent experience of packing up my own books for a move across the country. Putting books into boxes turns out to be quite hazardous for the soul. For me, at least-as my wife can attest--it was a source of endless agitation. On the one hand, the process of packing compelled me to reckon with a number of unrealized intellectual aspirations-that is to say, books purchased with the intent of exploring new fields: the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, biographies of the great jazz musicians, European encounters in the South Pacific and related anthropological literature, explorations (both real and imagined) of Mars ... So many books, so little time.

On the other hand, packing provided me with an opportunity to hold once again the books that still matter a great deal to me, most of them yellow and dog-eared from hard usage in college: William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Bernal Diaz's The Conquest of New Spain, the Diaries of Samuel Pepys, Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, Friedrich Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the poetry of Emily Dickinson (all read for the first time my freshmen year). I have read other books since that have been useful to me, but none that have had such a profound impact. Eric Frank, the dean of the Occidental, observed to me the other day that it was no accident that the books which matter most to us are the books that we read in college. This is the moment when we are most open to the world, when we are searching for answers to the biggest questions. I think he's right. And I envy the engagement you will soon have with the books and big questions that await you.

I did my best to place these treasures neatly into their cardboard, moving boxes (all carefully labeled, numbered and taped), but I found myself anxious about their capacity to survive the trip across the continent, subject as they would soon be to loss, as well as to the hazards of water and weight. To be without them even for two weeks was a trial.

In his magnificent book on the history of reading, Manguel recalls the trials and tribulations of another devoted reader, the Grand Vizier of Persia, who had his collection of 117,000 books carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to cross the desert -- in alphabetical order. Believe me, if I could have persuaded Atlas Van Lines to do something like that, I would have.

One might think of books and reading in many ways. Here is one: It is said that in the medieval rituals of Judaism young boys were initiated into a life of devotion to the word and the Book in the following manner: the "initiate was wrapped in a prayer shawl and taken by his father to the teacher. The teacher sat the boy on his lap and showed him a slate on which were written the Hebrew alphabet, a passage from the Scriptures and the words 'May the Torah be your occupation.' The teacher read out every word and the child repeated it. Then the slate was covered with honey and the child licked it, thereby assimilating the holy words."

I am not proposing that we dip our books in honey or that you lick them (delicious though they may be), however I am proposing that something of that same devotional posture remain a part of how we think about books and the act of reading.

Given what I have just been saying, you can imagine my response when I discovered upon graduation from college that the apartments of the people I had gone to school with were suddenly depopulated of books. The books were replaced with magazines (of dubious quality) and a few years later with a few coffeetable books.  I was stunned. These were people that I knew to be serious students.

When I asked them where all their books were, I got various answers. I was told by some that they had sold them back to the bookstore, or that they had put them in storage because they didn't have enough room, some were embarrassed and some just shrugged their shoulders-as if to say that was then, this is now.

You might think that perhaps I should have chosen different friends, but these were people that I admired and respected. People who worked hard in their classes. I fear that for some of you-I hope I'm wrong-this will be more the rule than the exception in part because your lives will grow busier and busier-making the time devoted to reading seem like more of a luxury than a necessity. And that time is a necessity if you hope to respond thoughtfully to the world around you.

You will soon notice that when you walk into the office of your professors there is almost always a shelf of books-often more than one shelf. When professors visit other professors the first thing they do is look at what is on their book shelf. No matter how important the conversation, you will find their eyes (and often their thoughts) drifting away from you (and the subject at hand) and lingering over the titles on the bookshelf. One might say that professors sniff each other's books the way dogs sniff each other upon first meeting. It's not the prettiest analogy, but I stand by it nonetheless. I would guess that the assumption behind this scrutiny goes something like this: Tell me what you are reading and I will tell you who you are.

Let me offer you another, more fanciful analogy that suggests yet one more way one might think about books and their importance in our lives. In the 16th and 17th centuries -- during the Age of Exploration -- many European aristocrats kept what they called wonder cabinets. These wonder cabinets were filled with exotic items which were brought back to Europe from the far corners of the globe. Some of them real-like Aztec jewelry hammered out of gold and silver, elaborate masks used in the fierce and beautiful rituals of Oceania, the shell of a never before seen species of tortoise or armadillo.

Some of the items on display in the wonder cabinets were patently false: mermaid's tails, drawings of two-headed men, fierce Amazons and fantastical beasts. But all of the items-real or false (and often it was hard to tell the difference) were treated as objects of fascination, the subjects of lengthy discussion and even reverie.

I'd like to propose that you think of your bookshelf that way-as something of a wonder cabinet filled with exotic ideas, maps of continents that never existed, language as gorgeous and iridescent as the shells brought back from the South Seas. The immediate utility of these things may not be readily apparent, but they are prods to the imagination which encourage us to think beyond the well-trodden ground of our contemporaries.

You will want to have books on your shelf like that: books that lay out the compelling ideas of Communism even as they chronicle its grotesque disfigurement under Stalin and Mao; books that contain records of the hopelessly naïve, but nonetheless moving social experiments in 19th Century America like Brook Farm, Fruitlands, Oneida and the Shakers in which their participants believed that the very best could be brought out in people if you got the social arrangements right; or books that display the hopelessly utopian ambitions of the Russian avant-garde (Think of it: Boxcars rumbling through Siberia painted with abstract designs meant to bring about liberation of the minds and hearts of the Russian peasantry as well as the synthesis of art and politics.) I could go on.

These are ideas that failed. Filled with a mixture of truth and falsehood that is difficult to disentangle. As such they are dubious guides to the needs of the present. But then, there are no real guidebooks to the present and one ought to be suspicious of anyone who claims that there are. There are only books and more books, each with an argument or a point of view that must be weighed against a competing set of claims about the world. There is no release from this maelstrom of ideas. Learning how to negotiate it is the essence of a liberal arts education.

In The History of Reading, Manguel describes reading as "the beginning of the social contract." A provocative phrase, but what does he mean by that? He means that the act of reading is the beginning of our conversation with each other. Reading, that most private of acts, turns out to be the spur to the creation of our social being. It takes us beyond our petty concerns and self-absorption, out into the world and the lives we will share together.

But that only gets at part of the social contract for which reading is essential. There's more. The political philosopher, Joseph Tussman (founder of the Experimental College at Berkeley in the '60s), argued that late adolescence was not only a moment in which young people are asking the big questions about the meaning of life: Why am I here? What do I wish to do with my life? How can I make it meaningful? It is also the moment in which society issues an invitation to its young people, an invitation of citizenship. That is to say, a social contract. That invitation/contract can either be taken seriously or neglected. If it is taken seriously, then for Tussman, at least, that means a deep immersion into the resources of the culture that students will inherit.

For Tussman that deep immersion involves a very special kind of reading. That is to say, reading in "slow motion." His Experimental College taught only one course for the whole year. And in that course, he would have students read just one book at a time, and often they would read that one book for weeks at a time. It wasn't easy. Going through a book in slow motion means you have to read and reread it with the utmost care in order to wring everything out of it. Approaching important books in this way not only teaches students how to read, it teaches them just how deep those books can take them and about the riches waiting to be discovered there.

Because Tussman, like Manguel, fervently believed that reading is the beginning of the social contract, he organized a reading list in political history that ensured his students understood the demands of citizenship. Much of the reading list explored the twin commitments to freedom and equality that are at the heart of the American experiment. Freedom and equality are two terms that are often invoked in the same breath, but which turn out to be in perpetual tension with each other. And even when they are not in tension with each other, they are often insufficiently realized. Tussman argued that institutions of higher learning have a special obligation to their students, to prepare them for their responsibilities as citizens. For the social contract to be meaningful, students need to form a deep engagement with the resources, questions, values, accomplishments, and failures of their society and to develop the skills they will need to act on their convictions.

All of which is to say that reading is no mere way to pass the time, nor is it an activity confined to the ivory tower. It is an act that is freighted with social significance, and it is a source -- at least in my experience -- of endless pleasure. If I could wish anything for you on this important occasion, it would be that you will have an opportunity to cultivate the myriad pleasures of reading while you are at Occidental. And that books will become an indispensible part of your lives.

Let me leave you with this final anecdote from Virginia Woolf: "I have sometimes dreamt," she wrote, "that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards-their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble-the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us [by which Woolf meant readers/students like herself/like you] coming with our books under our arms, 'Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them. They have loved reading.'"

I wish you luck.