September 2011 President's Bookshelf

Recently, I was walking by one of my overly stuffed bookshelves and an unread book called to me. Books tend to do that, both the ones I have at home and the books I walk by in book stores. The book was Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. This is not a new book. In fact, it was published in 2004. One of my sons gave it to me for Christmas that year, and I set it aside to read some day since it was a trifle daunting—541 pages in paperback, not counting the suggestions for further reading and the exhaustive index. Freshly reminded of its existence, I finally read the book and was rewarded with a deeper understanding of complex ideas like special relativity and the spacetime continuum and the wonders of quantum mechanics. However, I am not going to force you to read more about my delight at finally understanding a bit of modern physics. The point of this addition to my Book Shelf is to talk about some authors that I wish I could invite to dinner and talk with for hours. Some books read like rich conversations with someone who deeply understands some aspect of human nature or how the world works—someone you truly wish you could meet and get to know. Brian Greene is one of those authors. As I read his book on the cosmos, I wanted to interrupt him mid-page and ask a question or two about what he had written rather than wait for him to get around to answering that question a chapter or two later.


Another wonderful author that I wish I could meet is Anne Fadiman. I used to love to read her essays in The American Scholar, a magazine full of wonderful essays and poems and reflections on topics that I would never encounter otherwise. When she took over the Civilization Magazine at the Library of Congress, she started another series of essays, this time about her family and her love of books—not just reading books or collecting books but also holding them, making notes in them, smelling them, turning the pages and feeling the texture of the paper. I commend her essays to you, especially the ones in her book entitled Ex Libris. I took my time reading through her essays because I didn’t want them to end, and I was enjoying the things that stirred up in my mind as I read them. My favorite essay was entitled “Nothing New Under the Sun,” a rich tapestry of images and quotations that have been spliced into our ways of thinking so thoroughly that most of us probably don’t think at all about where those expressions, metaphors and rich images came from. To prove her point, she footnoted every one of those classic bits and worked her way up to 38 tiny footnotes. As an academic who has always made sure to provide the source of every idea I weave into my own work, I loved this good humored reflection on the scholarly life.


Please indulge me a moment more while I tell you about two other authors I wish I could meet. One of them is Billy Collins, a former U.S. Poet Laureate and the author of Horoscopes for the Dead. I want to find out how he sees the world. His poems seem to start from something he notices that sets off idea bursts in his mental landscape. It is hard to select a favorite poem from this latest collection, but I am inclined to offer “The Flâneur.” I want to ask Mr. Collins whether this poem is the result of his encountering a book with a similar title—The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White. I bet that Billy Collins has read that book or at least taken it down from a book shelf somewhere out of curiosity. I also would guess that the memory of that book blended with his own aimless walking, except that Mr. Collins was in Florida, not Paris. The resulting poem was delightful.  To quote two lines from this poem—“I did notice a man looking at this watch and I reflected briefly on the passage of time.” How often do books have that effect on us—coloring our perceptions, enriching our reactions to the world around us and the people we meet? Is that what happens for Billy Collins? I want to know.

Another person I want to meet is Adam Bly, the founder of a web magazine called Seed and the editor of a book of conversations that pair scientists and artists called Science is Culture. Out of curiosity and having no idea what Seed was, I went online and found http://seedmagazine.com. The site is filled with a rich array of stories about science and society. I want to know how Mr. Bly thinks and how he put together the people whose conversations exploring rich and wonderful ideas about consciousness, dreams, time, concepts of design, the truth of fiction, and other wonders are captured in Science is Culture. Besides meeting the editor, I really wish I could join in some of the conversations captured in the book. As I read those conversations, I had some ideas I wanted to add to the mix, some questions I wanted to ask the people whose conversation I was enjoying as a reader. Lately, I have been enjoying really good, lively conversations about just about anything. I just wish I could meet some of these wonderful people and talk with them too.

September 2011 President's Bookshelf