News & Publications
The College Magazine - Fall 2008
Perhaps it's a program work, or maybe, a children's book. But books have the power to influence our lives,
even when we're not aware of it at the time.
The Book That Changed My Life
The College asked alumni to describe a book that was important in their lives. What we received in return were stories of career paths found, dilemmas resolved, passion and purpose discovered, faith strengthened, and questions answered.
"A Fruitful Tension"
Edward Bauer (Class of 1954)
I spent the summer after my freshman year at St. John's (1949-50) at home, trying to come to terms with the Program's total absence of "historical background," which of course is an issue of critical importance for the Program. I don't remember how I came upon Oswald Spengler's huge work, The Decline of the West. But I soon became convinced that a broad knowledge of the history of an era (or of a work of literature, or a particular architecture or art form, etc.) was absolutely necessary for understanding it. Since I felt that so strongly, I did not see how I could return to St. John's in the fall. I wrote to Mr. [Jacob] Klein, the dean, and tried to explain my decision, and I will always be grateful to him for his understanding and for taking the time to write to me about the anti-historical approach that the Program represented.
I did not return to the college that fall. I did manage to resolve my dilemma, as it were, and returned to St. John's the following fall, to graduate three years later with my "new" class of 1954. But Spengler has remained the single greatest influence in my life. He gave me a context in which I could comprehend various stages, or the 'development' of a particular people (for example, the Greeks, or time, or how to imagine what Beethoven's late quartets meant in our earlier Western culture). I also understood how what we are experiencing now in the late stages of Western civilization is one more historical example of the birth, growth, achievement, and decline—the biological analogy, in a word—of a particular cultural entity.
In a very real way, my whole life has exemplified this tension between historical and anti- (or un-) historical. I would like to believe it has been a fruitful tension.
"A Meaningful Life"
Isaac Smith (A03)
I tend to date the point when I stopped being a teenager and started to become an adult to the time I was reading Middlemarch in junior seminar, Middlemarch being, of course, the great novel of dashed hopes and bruised idealism. It had been a few months after the September 11 attacks, and I was coming to grips not only with my own mortality (the passage when Casaubon stares death in the face is one of the novel's high points) but with my own anonymity, the knowledge that all my deeds, thoughts, and high ideals would be swallowed up by time and forgotten. As a result, I strongly identified with Dorothea, Ladislaw, and Lydgate, and their attempts to carve out a meaningful life for themselves even if the results weren't what they intended. For similar reasons, I also fell in love with Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being—which in its own way grapples with the same themes.
"Watching Stars and Planets"
by Dave Prosper (SF02)
I suppose an actual Program book that changed my life would be Ptolemy's Almagest. As wrong as he turns out to be, I found his descriptions of how to watch the sky extremely useful, and thus I tend to stay up watching stars and planets and debating if I should just ditch the computer-job thing and become an astronomer. Then I remember that my math skills are lacking and decide against it.
There was also Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World, which was a nice skeptical smack in the brain. I realized that my weird dreams when younger were just memories of weird dreams and not weird memories of actual aliens poking around in my room. I can blame a Johnnie by the name of Whitley Strieber (A67) for that earlier confusion, thanks to Communion and his vivid descriptions of naughty, nosy aliens. I also read The Prince and Johnny Rotten's autobiography simultaneously during high school, which turned me into quite a little snot until St. John's classes and discussion thankfully beat that out of me. My first big-people book was War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells when I was 8, so that set the stage for everything.
"A Room Of One's Own" led Jennifer Hoheisel (AGI89) to think about women's opportunities.
"The Question of Opportunity"
Jennifer Hoheisel (AGI89)
Before reading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, I hadn't really thought about the fact that for centuries many women were in a cycle of constant pregnancy and childbirth that left little energy or brain power to do much that was academic. Personally I was in no frame of mind to do philosophy for at least a few months after each of our two sons was born—although I know women who feel otherwise. The cycle of frequent childbirth also was bound to interrupt the studies of those few women who did have access to higher education.
All of this helps to explain why we don't have many works from women prior to the advent of birth control and the opening of many institutions of higher education in the 20th century. (I know there are exceptions; I was writing a dissertation about a 14th-century female mystic when I was in grad school at Georgetown.) Woolf's book speaks about the need for women to have both the time and the financial independence to be able to write.
Not only did the book cause me to think about texts from women, it also made me realize how few women had been part of my higher education to that point. As an undergraduate majoring in Classical Civilization at the College of William and Mary, I never had a female professor, and at St. John's, all my tutors were male. I am not saying that there is anything inherently different about male and female scholars; rather, it made me think again about the question of opportunity. In my own family, my extremely bright grandmother was sent to work in order to send her brother—a man who took seven years and didn't finish the degree—to college. In the next generation, my mother was given the opportunity to go to college and was expected to excel, but her parents then assumed that she would marry, raise a family, and not work outside the home. When my sister and I arrived, we were expected to go to college and establish ourselves doing what we loved before we even thought about marriage. It was quite a difference among the three generations.
Woolf's book caused me to think about all these issues related to scholarship and opportunity for the first time. It made me appreciate anew my room in Humphreys Hall and the luxury of time to read and read deeply.
"A Profound Experience"
Erin Martell (A98)
One of the first "big kid" books my mother read me was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Order triumphed over chaos and I discovered the power of sheltering myself inside a story. I tore through the remaining books as fast as my newly-learned-to-read brain could process. I read This Present Darkness by Frank E. Peretti at a time in my life when I was seeking the answer to a question I didn't even know I had. As I finished the book, I realized with sudden clarity that I couldn't accept the religious precepts I'd been taught, their fundamental contradictions caused my constant struggle against the church, and that it was time to give up, be free and figure out what I believed on my terms. Last, as it was for many others, War and Peace was a profound experience for me. I don't think I captured the thoughts quite right in my senior paper, but the idea that difficult things are worth doing and worth surviving even if the surviving is all you have in the end has stayed with me.
"Challenged and Transformed"
Laura Anne Stuart (A93)
When I was a sophomore in Santa Fe, I came upon the book Angry Women while browsing at a record store in town. This book contains interviews with women artists, activists, and writers, most notably sexuality educators Annie Sprinkle and Susie Bright. My view of feminism and female sexuality was challenged and transformed, and I began to think that the field of sexual health might be where my passions lay. It hadn't even occurred to me before then that it could be a job!
While at St. John's, I followed my passion by co-coordinating the Women's Literature Study Group and organizing trips to Washington, D.C., to attend the 1992 March for Women's Lives and the 1993 March for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. After graduating from St. John's, I earned my master's degree in public health and worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. This year, I published a sex education curriculum for young adults and became the proud owner of a sex toy store in Milwaukee, the Tool Shed. When I finally met Susie Bright, she was amused to know that one interview that she had given years ago had started me on my career path. I spend a lot of time teaching and mentoring young people and hope that I can inspire someone in a similar way.
"A Lifetime's Pursuit"
Harrison Sheppard (Class of 1961)
Plato's Apology did not merely change my life; it virtually formed it. When I was 16, an uncle of mine—who had introduced me to "literature" when I was eight years old with an eight-volume set of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs—gave me a small volume containing five of Plato's dialogues: the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, and Republic. I vividly recall the moment, more than 50 years ago, riding on a Philadelphia subway train, when I finished my first reading of the Apology. That Socrates was willing to give up his life, defiantly, rather than abandon the search for knowledge as he had been pursuing it, had a stunning effect upon me, an effect that was simultaneously thrilling and exalting. I left that train transformed. It was a year later that I learned about St. John's College. But it was the Apology that awakened me to a lifetime's pursuit of self-knowledge in its deepest sense, the difference between what appears to be and what is, and living with integrity based upon one's self-recognition. Along with my experience at St. John's, it also accounts for my chosen professions as a lawyer and writer and my enduring devotion to what one might yet learn from reading Plato and his companions in "The Great Conversation" (as Robert Hutchins termed it).
Christopher Benson says authors, not books, have the power to change lives.
"In Search of Resonant Voices"
Christopher Benson (SFGI07)
To the shock of every Johnnie, no book has changed my life! I believe only authors are capable of changing our lives. St. John's was a transformative experience for me because the institution facilitated an intimate encounter between reader and author, an encounter that crosses time and culture. I read in search of resonant voices. To borrow an insight from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a resonant voice is "spoken over the round world" but comes "home through open or winding passages." It is a voice that I ought to hear, that belongs to me, that vibrates on my ear, consoling me when I am downtrodden and guiding me when I am lost. It is a voice of inexhaustible pleasure and needful wisdom, never flattened by the tyranny of time or the vicissitudes of life. It is a voice that treats my dark inertia, risks my securities, heals my hidden wounds, deepens my faith, awakens my somnolent imagination, expands my imperfect sympathies, and shapes my "final vocabulary."
I am tempted to mention other favorite authors—Dante, Shakespeare, Pascal, Thoreau, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Dickinson, and Frost—but I will discipline my list to include only the resonant voices:
Jesus: His subversive wisdom and edifying teaching inaugurate an upside-down kingdom—both in my soul and in the world—where the low is brought high and the high is brought low.
Saint Augustine: When the Bishop of Hippo authored his autobiography, Confessions, he authored the biography of every Christian. His prayers and tears are my prayers and tears. His conversion is my conversion. He reminds me of a terrible truth, "Without God, what am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?" Consequently, "nothing is nearer to God's ears than a confessing heart and a life grounded in faith."
Søren Kierkegaard: In Fear & Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, and Works of Love, Kierkegaard goads me, against my own sheepish obstinacy, in two directions: to enter the prodigious paradoxes of the Christian faith and to live the scandal of the Gospel.
C.S. Lewis: I read the apologetic works of Lewis—Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, Miracles, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, and The Abolition of Man—not as an "outsider" who surveys the landscape before undertaking a difficult journey, but as an "insider" who leaves the familiarity of the boat for a thrilling deep-sea dive. The analogical imagination of Lewis turns the Christian faith intelligible, challenging, and winsome. No one has done a finer job of holding the Fact and Myth of Christianity together. His translation of theology into the vernacular is magical, leaving me with goosebumps of wonder, just as Lucy experienced when she first beheld Narnia.
"More than Thought"
Steven T. Brenner (SFGI83)
When at age 15, I read Albert Schweitzer—An Anthology (edited by Charles R. Joy) I knew I'd been spared a lifetime of susceptibility to the dogmas and pretenses of the world, for which in return I would owe a lifetime debt of higher endeavor. Schweitzer's thought is more than thought; it is heroically won conviction born of total engagement with the mysterious condition in which we find ourselves. It never ceases to challenge me to revolutionary change in my own thought and way of life.
Until I discovered Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil 37 years later, I had no idea that such knowledge was available to human beings in their mortal state. Overwhelming as it is on first impression, a single reading of this human and cosmic creation poem—the most profound, most difficult, most beautiful work I know—barely contains a glimpse of its true riches. I still don't understand a tenth of it, but I know there's nothing to fear.
"A Second Chance"
Charles Green (AGI02)
Pride and Prejudice, in addition to being the funniest novel I've ever read, also showed me the importance of giving books a second chance. I first read the novel in 10th grade, and failed to see its point. Re-reading it during my junior year in college, I was amazed at how accurately Jane Austen captured aspects of myself in the main characters. I could see that some days I'm Elizabeth Bennet, witty and charming, while at other times I'm like Mr. Darcy, haughty and isolating, and every once in a while, I'm a silly, shameless flirt like Lydia Bennet.
"The Wonder of Life"
Valerie Pawlewicz (A89)
A book that affected my life—although I didn't know it at the time—was a garden book called Making Things Grow by Thalassa Cruso. She was a British gardener who lived in the Boston area and in the 1960s and 70s had a gardening TV show called—ta da!—"Making Things Grow." In a bunch of books my mother sent me when cleaning her house out about 10 years ago, in the middle of my busy life, I found this book about keeping houseplants alive. At the time I was working at the Smithsonian, commuting, putting in intense hours, and not quite content with the frenetic way of life in the Big City.
That fateful, rainy Saturday morning, I wanted something to read, and on a whim, I opened this book. Inside I discovered a world of calm, of green living things, and good, plain common sense. What surprised me was her delightful prose style. It was like having breakfast with a good, enjoyable friend. She would tell a story, give plant characteristics as if they were people, throw in details about growing up in a great house in England before World War II, explain what she looks for in buying plants from a local nursery, and share personal failures (growing gardenias) as well as successes (growing almost anything else).
The reason that this book "changed my life," as I see it now, was that it inspired me to learn more about gardening. I don't grow many houseplants, and I don't really work that hard to maintain the ones that I do. But I have learned to acknowledge my love of being outdoors and being with green things as a worthwhile way to spend my time and earn my money. I had always thought that working outdoors and gardening was for other people, a waste of my education beneath a "true" career. During the next 10 years, I took courses on the side, experimented in my garden on sunny weekends, and read more gardening books on rainy weekends. Along the way I found other good garden writers like Geoffrey Hamilton, Penelope Hobhouse, and Michael Dirr, who add as much personality as information when they write.
Eventually, four years ago, I turned to gardening full-time and now run my own personal gardening business, working only with private residential clients to help them to infuse something of themselves in their private gardens. I came to gardening late in life, being too busy to realize it was okay to be happy while I was busy. Now I have a business that is hard work but a delight. It involves my brain and body equally. It requires patience, research, labor, focus, art, and lots of techne. I also work closely with my clients to introduce them to the wonder of life growing right outside their door. For some clients, I am the most regular person in their lives—someone who knows about their worries, their careers, their doctor's visits, their dogs, their children, their security codes, their birthdays, their art, and their opinions about the upcoming election. I am the only person in the lives of my clients who knows their outdoor spaces as well as their personalities.
I don't think I've actually read the book in years—I just remember the feeling I got the first time I opened it up and became involved in her story. Now I feel I am living the book. Thalassa would like that.
Law professor Alan Hornstein (AGI86) found a revelation in Vico's "Nuova Scienza"
"Attending the Particular"
Alan D. Hornstein (AGI86)
Reading Vico's Nuova Scienza in a preceptorial with (tutor) Howard Fisher transformed my way of thinking. As the product of American legal education and with a career as a law professor, I had generally approached matters through the manipulation of abstractions—a thoroughly conceptual approach not only to the life of the mind, but to life itself. Vico's (and Fisher's) insistence on attending the particular, in all its singularity, was a revelation—one that I continue to struggle with, but which has also enriched my life and understanding enormously.
"A Very Metaphysical Place"
Christopher Sullivan (A89)
Following several sudden and unexpected deaths of people close to me, I fell into a miserable depression revolving around the fear of my own mortality and the mortality of those dearest to me. From all sides, friends offered suggestions of books to read, people to talk to, workshops to take, mind-body work to do, and medications to take to try to lessen the bitter sting of the depression. I read Viktor Frankl, the Dalai Lama, Epictetus, Lin Yutang, and so many more, but for months, no matter what I tried, no matter how much wisdom from throughout the ages I exposed myself to, that grim, immobilizing fear held its horrible grip.
Then in a slow process of distraction that led me from gym workouts to reading mystery novels and almost everything in between, someone recommended yet another book, one I'd never thought I would read, though I'd heard of it—even thought of as a joke!—for years.
Surprisingly, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill offered the first chink in the depression's armor that finally let me begin to climb out and get back to my life. After several chapters of vague and business-oriented ideas, in chapter 15, he shifts into a very metaphysical place. Addressing the fear of death, he reminds the reader that as we learned in elementary physics, the entire world is made up of only matter and energy. According to the concept of conservation of energy, one can transform into the other, but neither can be created or destroyed.
Suddenly my years of worrying and wondering about soul and afterlife and reincarnation and death came to a peaceful resolution. At death, I realized, whatever energy makes each of us the person that we are loses its connection to our body, but it is not lost or destroyed. From there, all those ideas about "we are all one with the Universe" or "God is within" or that life and death are an unending cycle came, finally, into a clearer focus. Exactly what becomes of that energy, that "soul," remains a mystery, but I found it hugely comforting to recognize that simple, physical, scientific truth. And I'm immeasurably grateful.