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Reading to be a Full Person

By Bob Bruner-

“Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” –Francis Bacon

A great university experience is all about becoming a “full person.” The American holiday season is approaching, and is a time for reflection, learning, and giving gifts. Reading is at the nexus of all of these good activities. By “reading,” I mean an effort more substantial than taking a glance at tweets, email, or Facebook pages. Good reading engages an argument of some kind, an argument that takes a while to unfold. Such reading deepens or challenges one’s point of view and often entails a surprise. The problem is that we don’t do enough serious reading. We’re awash in snippets of arguments, word-bites, and opinions that have no grounding in the facts.

How do you get the real gain out of reading?

1. Find a quiet time a place to read each day. Give a gift to yourself; even 20 minutes will do.

2. Watch your diet. A lot of junk reading will dull your mind. Read the healthy stuff.

3. Stay current. Read at least one daily newspaper a day—online or in print. You should learn to read a newspaper in 10 minutes, if pressed for time. If you’ve got more time, read the paper more thoroughly as a way to deepen your social awareness. In his forthcoming book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray argues that strata of American society are losing touch with each other. Do your part to stay in touch with how others live.

4. Start by following your interests and then branch out. Suppose you like finance: branch into psychology and risky behavior. Suppose you’re a partner in a big firm with lots of politics: read Machiavelli and the history of Renaissance Italy. Suppose you’re a public servant concerned with balancing the budget: read about the fall of Rome.

5. Read for depth and breadth. Set a goal for yourself to drill into a topic or set of ideas. Build a list of the best books in that area and work through them. But give yourself a breather regularly by leaping into some unrelated field.

6. Read a lot.

I read for 20-60 minutes a day, usually drawn from time at the start and end of the day. And I carry a book and periodicals in my briefcase all the time—the inevitable waiting moments while traveling become time for me to read. A lifetime project of mine is to read the best biographies of all the US Presidents, in chronological order. I’m up to Abraham Lincoln, who may be the President about whom the most books have been written—I’ve been branching out into a range of related studies about Lincoln and his time. Each day I read (or at least scan) four newspapers: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Charlottesville Daily Progress. As you can imagine, there is quite an overlap in the news content among these papers; but I value seeing how the editors treat the news and how the editorials and op-eds vary. I follow about a dozen blogs focused on investing, economics, and public policy. And I read the Economist, New Yorker, and Foreign Affairs as they arrive. My diet of serious reading is leavened with novels by Sara Paretsky, David Baldacci, Patricia Cornwell, and Charlottesville’s own John Grisham. In all, I’ve read 42 books in the past 12 months.

One of the regular questions I get is “what are you reading?” Last year, I began to spell out my top recommendations (see here). Continuing my annual recap, what follows are my “best bet” recommendations from the books I read over the past year:

1. Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness. If you think mental illness is only for followers, think again. This is an excellent discussion of depression at the top and how it contributes to a style of leadership.

2. Howe and Strauss, The Fourth Turning. An exhausting presentation of a theory that America is entering a period of decline and extreme turbulence owing to a historical cycle of change. I seriously doubt the conclusions the authors reach, owing to their selective use of facts and historical analogies. Yet I recommend it as a stimulating representative of “declinist” writings. Sure to challenge your comfortable optimism.

3. Manfred Kets de Vries, Happiness Factor. I had the pleasure of teaching this book in a small seminar last winter. It is a succinct summary of research and writings on human happiness. Are you happy? Maybe the pursuit of happiness is not the best pursuit in life. Read this, and think further.

4. Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist. A good pairing with #2. I mentioned this book last year as an item I was reading. Well I finished it and am glad to have done so. Well-written and buoyantly optimistic about the future. In the middle of all the other stuff we’ve endured this year, a book like this is a useful companion.

5. Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. A classic novel that every business student (and alum) should read. Conveys the story of a business executive who decides to chart a different course in the face of a strongly conformist corporate culture.

6. James M. McPherson, Tried by War. A book about Lincoln’s leadership of the Federal side of the Civil War. He matured into a genuine general manager. Simply excellent. A must-read.

7. Kim MacQuarrie, Last Days of the Incas. I read this while hiking in the Peruvian Andes. A very well written history of the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire.  A bloodthirsty story; highly improbable that anyone would have survived.  In the wake of the conquest, the Inca civilization simply vanished, a startling outcome.

8. Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. A heroic story of leadership and the will to live in the face of extreme hardship.

9. Daniel Howe, What Hath God Wrought. A history of the United States from 1815 to 1848. If you think US politics are difficult today, look at what happened then.

10. Peter Sims, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries. A delightful and provocative reading about the origin of innovation. It features the research of Darden colleague Saras Sarasvathy. Highly recommended.

11. Patrick Howie, The Evolution of Revolutions: How we Create, Shape, and React to Change. A good complement to item #10; a macro view of change and waves of innovation.

12. Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild. A gripping story of a college graduate who progressively stepped out of society—and died from naiveté and romanticism. I read this while hiking in Alaska. Big message: don’t assume that nature is forgiving.

13. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals. A classic in the field and an excellent complement to #6. This is a carefully-researched illustration of the challenges a senior leader faces in managing a group of talented direct reports.

14. Edward Hess and Kim S. Cameron, Leading with Values: Positivity, Virtue, and High Performance. A book of readings co-edited by Darden colleague Ed Hess that helps to link corporate high performance to a positive and virtuous leadership style. In the age of the “toxic boss,” this book is a welcome antidote.

15. George Tenet, At the Center of the Storm. Tenet served as Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency up to and during 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and search for weapons of mass destruction. The book is a memoir of his tenure at the CIA and the origins of the WMD debacle. A very well-written perspective on the response of government leaders to the rise of global terrorist activity.  I interviewed Tenet on stage at Darden’s recent University of Virginia Investing Conference.  He impressed everyone as a forthright and compelling judge of international trends and threats.