James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for May 17th, 2008

Four books

Posted by James McPherson on May 17, 2008

The student body president of the university in which I teach had an interesting idea. He asked every faculty member and administrator for a list of four books (excluding the Bible) that had influenced them in some way, and then he shared the entire list with the student body. One surprise was how few duplicates were chosen. Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis appeared most frequently on the list, with 14 mentions (five for Mere Christianity, with three other titles splitting the rest).

Not surprisingly, many people chose at least one or two books related to their own disciplines, and I’d guess that those books helped guide them into their chosen fields. Adminstrators listed books about leadership. An art professor chose a book about painting and one about drawing. Business professors listed books about business strategies. Coaches named John Wooden and other coaches. A biology professor and a psychology professor both cited Darwin, and a philosophy professor named Plato and Augustine.

Some choices that might have been more surprising, especially to those unfamiliar with liberal arts institutions. The Brothers Karamazov made four lists, while The Brothers K and Moby Dick each made two. A wide range of literary and inspirational works appeared, demonstrating what I once read elsewhere (sorry, I can’t remember the source): that two modern students could each gain a thorough and satisfying liberal arts education without having read any two books in common. That range is great in terms of diversity of ideas, but does mean that we have fewer cultural touchstones in common. Instead of great literary works, of course, what we now share are here-and-gone television shows.

Incidentally, the titles of my own list–which I found difficult to whittle to four choices–make it look like I teach geography. Most are misleading in that sense, of course, and have far more to do with my views of journalism. My choices were:

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I actually had never managed to get around to reading this until after I read Neil Postman’s 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman noted that though we feared a world like that presented in George Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s nightmare vision was much closer to our reality.
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. A wonderful critic of American journalism, Sinclair’s 1906 classic about the meatpacking industry in Chicago prompted changes in food laws and horrified millions–including me, many years later when I was in high school. It also showed me what passionate writing could sometimes do for society as a whole.
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, better known for his comic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Perhaps better than anyone else, Abbey showed us what is beautiful and worth saving of the American Southwest. And he did so in a way that was simultaneously cranky and funny.
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. A fable that was the former journalist’s simplest and perhaps best work. And the older I get, the better it gets. Which reminds me of a favorite, unrelated expression: “The older I get, the better I used to be.”

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