Review of An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, by Robert Kegan et al.
I am embarrassed to admit that for months An Everyone Culture battled for my attention on my nightstand with another book (John Taylor’s In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran), but finally I turned to it, in part because I kept receiving karmic suggestions to get going. On a recent visit to the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, for instance, I saw it perched on the bookshelf of Bob Ryshke, director of Westminster’s Center for Teaching. Bob is someone I like and respect a great deal, and when I mentioned I was reading it, too, he recommended the book enthusiastically.
As it turns out, An Everyone Culture is a provocative and thought-provoking book about creating cultures of aggressively intentional personal and organizational development that I suspect would give most seasoned teachers and administrators pause. But I realized in the early stages of reading this book that we should now be creating work environments not just for ourselves, but for a new generation of teachers, young people who are pursuing workplaces that promise more than stability and security and the chance to be left alone to teach – what the authors call the new incomes: “personal satisfaction, meaningfulness, and happiness” (7). In a marketplace where new entrants into the field expect individualized strategic plans for their personal development, this book is a welcome blueprint for how to transform a school’s culture to meet their needs – and to improve as an institution in the process.
Although the book has broad appeal for organizations of all types and definite applications for schools, it is designed for business leaders, and it focuses on three corporate examples:
- The Decurion Corporation, the L.A.-based parent company of a variety of subsidiaries, including a west coast theatre chain.
- Next Jump, an e-commerce company in New York that (I think) designs and manages corporate loyalty programs for companies like Dell and Hilton. Their motto: Better Me + Better You = Better Us.
- Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund management firm based in Westport, CT.
These companies have unique cultures and have developed what the authors call “deliberately developmental organizations” (DDOs). DDOs bake in the expectation that everyone’s development will be accelerated, from the CEO on down. They have a financial interest in doing so, to be sure, but these companies also evince an extreme level of commitment to their employees. Here is the statement on Decurion’s homepage, entitled “Flourish:”
Decurion’s purpose, the fundamental reason it exists, is to provide places for people to flourish. By “flourish” we mean to become fully oneself, which includes living an undivided life and growing into what one is meant to be. We believe that every human being has something unique to express (perhaps several unique things over the course of a lifetime). While building each of our businesses to world-class standards, we seek to create the conditions in which that expression will emerge. Flourishing is the process of living into one’s unique contribution. We expect to do this through our work.
Here’s a snippet from Bridgewater’s Principles & Culture page:
We want an idea meritocracy in which meaningful work and meaningful relationships are pursued through radical truth and radical transparency. We require people to be extremely open, air disagreements, test each other’s logic, and view discovering mistakes and weaknesses as a good thing that leads to improvement and innovation. It is by continually striving together for the highest levels of truth and excellence that we create meaningful work and meaningful relationships.
It’s a fascinating proposition – central to the organization’s mission is the development of its human resources, which can only happen through “radical truth and radical transparency.” Our authors breathlessly describe this yeasty alternative to the pallid professional development programs that most of us have experienced: “Imagine so valuing the importance of developing people’s capabilities that you design a culture that itself immersively sweeps every member of the organization into an ongoing developmental journey in the course of working every day” (4). The result? A company full of intensely enthusiastic and loyal employees who see their own growth and development as essential to the success of the organization.
Sadly, in this system, gone is that annual junket to the National Council of Reflexology Practitioners that you enjoy so much. This professional development is all about exposing one’s weaknesses and mistakes, being vulnerable, and taking risks. As the authors note, “Development requires a willingness to surrender a familiar equilibrium for what will eventually be a new, more adaptive one” (113). “Constructive destabilization” is the coin of the realm in DDOs, and “members expect to be regularly, but manageably, in over their heads” (99). These companies believe that intentionally putting people in destabilizing positions forces growth. “The conditions for a strong developmental pull [a challenge that motivates growth] are created,” the authors write, “when someone is placed in a role or responsibility she hasn’t mastered or for which the complexity of the task is slightly above her current capability” (147). And once you get comfortable – once you finally feel competent – it’s time to move to a new job. It’s not for everyone, though [Next Jump even buys out employees who can’t get on board with their ideology.]
Reading about these radical corporate practices – the “issues logs,” the “talking partners,” the “situational workshops” – was exhausting, a result of my projecting myself into a DDO and imagining what must be, at least at first, a very unsettling work environment (though in the book’s examples, that lack of stability is seen by community members as an organizational strength and an attractive part of the culture). Frankly, it sounds brutal – like Tribal Council on Survivor, but one where giving and receiving honest feedback about one’s weaknesses is a daily expectation rather than the run-up to getting voted off the island. And it also seems to be transformative. And also clearly not for every organization – the authors are painstaking in their efforts to make it clear that cultures that support this kind of personal development have to be carefully built over time.
This book is essentially about feedback – continuous, authentic, and candid feedback – and about creating an organizational culture where exposing weaknesses is seen as an opportunity for growth rather than something to be hidden or circumvented. Success requires self-confidence, bravery, and openness from everyone. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but what could our schools accomplish if everyone in them was committed to mutual growth and development? This book supplies some solid answers. I highly recommend it.
a version of this review appears online here.
I know it’s ridiculous to complete this blog series now — a mere ten months after I started it — but closure feels good. And these songs are amazing. To the three people who read this blog: I promise the Best of 2014 won’t take as long.
10. “St. Croix,” Family of the Year. You’ll forget this song in a year. But perhaps it will linger as long as next summer, when it will seem perfect. I’m a sucker for SoCal harmonies and melodic pop-rock.
9. “Sweet As John Hurt,” Hiss Golden Messenger. HGM is a duo of former West-Coast punk/indie rockers who relocated to North Carolina in 2007 and are a recent addition to the stable of Merge artists. This song is more Whiskeytown than Arcade Fire, and it has an earnestness that gets me every time. Check out their new album The Lateness of Dancers. Here’s a great live HGM track (“Southern Grammar”) recorded this summer.
8. “Anchors,” The Attika State. This is one of the greatest bands no one knows about. Their 2008 album Measures is outstanding — punchy, slightly angular indie rock. I love this acoustic set — are they playing in an ice cream shoppe? That’s rock n roll. I also love that I introduced them to Jeremy Kerman, a man whose musical and artistic tastes are impeccable, and who likes them as much as I do.
7. “Starlet,” Matt Pond PA. Matt Pond doesn’t have any rough edges, and he can be a little precious with his song and album titles, but he’s compulsively listenable. This is a great song. Here he is with Rocky Votolato covering “Don’t You Want Me Baby” by the Human League at The AV Club.
6. “The Woodpile,” Frightened Rabbit. Great Scottish band, introduced to me by Lanis Wilson. This song is off their latest album, Pedestrian Verse.
5. “Highwire Days (live),” Tommy Keene. The original version of this song is on Keene’s 1989 LP Based on Happy Times, which is a criminally overlooked masterpiece of 80s pop rock. This version comes from his live Showtunes LP. Last September I saw TK at King’s Barcade in Raleigh with my friend Adam. There may have been fourteen people there. And it was amazing. He’s a guitar virtuoso. At one point, he asked for requests, and I screamed for this song as if I was standing at the back of an arena (I was in actuality about ten feat from the stage.) I don’t care — he played it.
4. “City Swan,” Neko Case. Another concert with Adam, this time at DPAC. I admire Neko Case and love her music. She also has the Seinfeldian quality of either looking drop-dead gorgeous or road weary. Here she is looking fabulous:
Of course how she looks has no bearing on her music, which is uniformly excellent. This is a fantastic song off her latest solo LP, The Worse Things Get….It’s almost as good as my all-time favorite song of hers, “People Got a Lotta Nerve.”
3. “Love Is All,” The Tallest Man on Earth. As a “singles guy,” these days there aren’t many albums that are more compelling to me as units than as their component parts. I’m always looking to cherry pick great tracks for the next best-of compilation. TTMOE (Swedish folk singer Kristian Matsson) writes great singles and makes great albums. It’s both criticism and praise that he seems to imitate (or channel) Bob Dylan. I think he’s fantastic, and this song is tremendous. Here is a great versions of “Love Is All” recorded live on Later…with Jules Holland in 2011.
2. “Walk Away,” The English Beat. Another reclaimed gem. I was a General Public Fan first, but The English Beat may now be tied with early R.E.M. as my favorite band. I’ve owned Special Beat Service (The Beat’s masterpiece, in my opinion) for decades and acquired the very good I Just Can’t Stop It somewhere along the way. Somehow, Wha’ppen escaped me until last year, when I purchased the EB boxed set. It’s a bit more uneven than the other two (though it includes the classic “Doors of Your Heart”), but “Walk Away” would make my top-five English Beat songs for sure. Ska perfection. Also, The Beat played the Cat’s Cradle the same night that Neko Case played the DPAC — an embarrassment of riches, for sure.
1. “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” Superchunk. I was scared of Superchunk when I was in college. And I also confused them with the grunge band Mudhoney. It’s a hole in my college music experience that I’ve been trying to fill ever since. This song is pop perfection. It’s the lead track on Superchunk’s most recent release, I Hate Music, which is excellent, though not as good as their masterpiece Majesty Shredding. Great live version of the song here.
Here’s a link to the Best of 2013 Spotify playlist if you’re interested.
That’s it for 2013. Looking forward to sharing the Best of 2014 in the new year!
Here are the next five songs on the Best of 2013 CD. Enjoy!
15. “Treasure,” Bruno Mars. I put this song here to highlight the fact that this “mix” isn’t really a mix at all. If I were constructing this CD not in descending order, I’d never juxtapose Mark Kozelek’s gentle folk with this rollicking 70s jam. The artistry this project demands is superseded by its structure (much like the mix CD itself, which is sonically superior to the mix tape but structurally inferior — I need a side A and a side B! I need to build to a crescendo and then cool it off a little…and then build it back up, only to cool it off again.) This song recently snuck into my top twenty, and I can’t stop listening to it. Yes, it’s corporate and derivative (it could be a lost track from Off the Wall), and I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Bruno Mars in general, but this tune is an “ear worm” of the first order. This may be the #1 pop song of the year.
14. “A Faded Star,” The Deadly Gentlemen. This one sounds like “picking on the Wallflowers” (which is a good thing in my view.) I’m not sure where it came from, but it’s another track that insinuated itself late in the game. I’m a fan of (good) bluegrass and have featured multiple tracks by Trampled by Turtles (check out “Empire” — great stuff) and others over the last few years. Apparently the lead singer/banjoist of The Deadly Gentlemen has a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from M.I.T., and he can play the banjo, which makes me feel doubly lame. Their website describes their new album as “winsome” and “irreverent,” which is how I like to think of myself.
13. “Julie (Come Out of the Rain),” Josh Rouse. I remember buying one of his first CDs in a Starbucks in Charlottesville years ago. Though he still tends to fall in love with certain genres and styles too often for my tastes, he has never lost his innate sense of melody (in full effect with this track.) I saw him live at the Kentucky Center in Louisville this summer; I used the concert as a mid-week lifeline to help me endure the soul-crushing, spirit-razing experience of grading AP exams. Rouse was just over from Spain. It was the first night of the tour, a Wednesday, and JR was a bit put out because the “Derby City” wasn’t mustering the Ibiza-like energy he was used to. Still, a great show. And it helped me survive the AP Reaping, so I feel like I owe him.
12. “The A-Team,” Ed Sheeran. Actually, I prefer the acoustic versions of this song you can find on the web. I especially like this one. Is he in a canal? It’s canal rock. With herbs. Dude looks like he needs a skateboard and a can of spray paint. Still a great song.
11. “That’s the Way the World Goes Round,” John Prine. This is an example of a song that has existed long before I discovered it (it first appeared on Prine’s 1978 album Bruised Orange.) Its inclusion here is more about my celebration of the discovery than anything else, though it’s also a fantastic song. I first heard it played by The Old Habits, the Raleigh-based bluegrass band that plays at our Senior Dinner each year (they, too, are fantastic.) This song opened up Prine’s entire catalog to me, which was a real gift. And I’m a sucker for the tin whistle.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve made “Best of” compilations, through which I seek archive the best music of that particular year. This must’ve started about the time I got married and no longer was making CDs for anyone who dropped a pencil in my general vicinity (there are times when a man just needs to make a mix!) I obsess about these compilations, hoarding possibilities all year long until trimming the list each December. I know I’m not alone in this activity, though I will confess a strong sense of pride in the results…which typically lasts until about a week after I mail them out. Looking back on some recent best of compilations, I’ve made some colossal mistakes (The Everybodyfields?) If I mined the best of the best ofs, though, the greatest hits would make a killer mix.
I thought I’d reveal the Best of 2013 with the liner notes, starting with #20. I’ll do five at a time.
One caveat (because there are always caveats): not all of the songs were released during the year the compilation is chronicling; some are old but new to me (e.g., “Go All the Way”) or songs that for various reasons worked their way back into my consciousness this year (e.g., “Highwire Days”).
Part I: #20-16
20. “Shake Some Action,” Flamin’ Groovies/”Go All the Way,” The Raspberries. If I had to pick a favorite genre of music, it would be “power pop” (think Big Star, Tommy Keene, Teenage Fanclub.) I don’t know why I like it so much, but in my frustrated musician dreams, I’m always the frontman for a power pop band. I recently came across a reference to a book called Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide, by John Borack, which traces the history of power pop and compiles the best albums and tracks of the genre (it must’ve been so fun to write.) I want this book. And it’s out-of-print. I found a partial version on Google Books, and I set upon it it as if it were a musical Rosetta Stone. It quickly became apparent that Borack revered the Flamin’ Groovies and The Raspberries as progenitors of the style. In my estimation, these are their best tracks. You’ve probably heard them before. It’s easy to hear their influence on bands like Matthew Sweet, The Posies, The Smithereens, etc.
19. “Turn,” New Order. I love New Order. I was under the impression that they hadn’t released anything worthwhile since “Regret” (1993), and I’m still mostly right. However, this gem, from Waiting for the Sirens’ Call (2005), is 4.5 minutes of pop-rock perfection. The video seems to have been edited by a graduate student in film school.
18. “White Sands,” Mount Moriah. Everyone hip to the local music scene is waiting for Mount Moriah to blow up, and if there’s any justice in the universe (and if bands actually “blow up” anymore), this band deserves it. Heather McEntire is a local legend in Durham and Chapel Hill and locally known as a kind, unassuming, wonderful person. And she rocks. The DIY video includes some “interesting” directorial choices (what’s up with the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers dancers?), but this song smolders.
17. “22,” Taylor Swift. I know, I know…but it’s so catchy. Try as I might, I continually fall prey to Taylor Swift’s “genuineness,” even though I’m subconsciously aware (can you be subconsciously aware?) that it’s all sheen applied by the music industry machine (or what’s left of it). Confession: I actually prepare a “Best of (Guilty Pleasures)”; it’s kind of a parallel universe disc compiled by AlternateLee, who is much less hip but undoubtedly much more well adjusted and self-satisfied. I make this separate disc so that my former suitemate and music-industry friend Ian (whose opinion I court with a fervor reserved for zealots) will actually (maybe) listen to the compilations all the way through. Including this song outright would send him into an apoplectic rage and cause him (yet again) to question the necessity and relevance of our friendship. I can hear him sputtering right now, “Have I taught you nothing?!?!?” and preparing an intervention which will include force-feeding me the entire Stooges catalog.) Ian has a thing about how I only like music (indie or otherwise) by well-groomed musicians (apparently using steel drums isn’t as edgy as I once thought.) And who is more well-groomed than Taylor Swift? No one. I’ve embraced it. [And yes, Ian, putting Taylor Swift one notch above Mount Moriah was intentional.]
Confronted by this photo, I am now wondering if this song will be The Everybodyfields of 2013.
16. “Sunshine in Chicago,” Sun Kil Moon. Mark Kozelek (formerly of Red House Painters and a member of Stillwater in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) is a genius. His music is melodic, layered, delicate, and literate. This is a beautiful song. If you like this song, check out his masterwork Ghosts of the Great Highway.
“A while back, when Dick & Barry & I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you *are* like, Barry proposed the idea of a questionnaire for potential partners, a 2 or 3 page multiple-choice document that covered all the music/film/TV/book bases…It amused us at the time… But there was an important & essential truth contained in the idea, and the truth was that these things matter, and it’s no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently, or if your favorite films
wouldn’t even speak to each other if they met at a party.”
“Is it wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.”
— High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
If this post and my last one are any indication, I’m clearly preoccupied with identifying favorites. I have a habit of pop-quzzing others with favorite lists [e.g., top five favorite Michael Jackson songs: (which are, of course) “Rock with You,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Beat It,” “Billy Jean.” Discuss.] You can learn a lot about a person by doing this. I don’t claim that this predilection makes me especially unique, though. Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming is similarly bedeviled in High Fidelity (I won’t lie, it’s an influence), and Hornby wrote another book that’s essentially a paean to his favorite mix tape. Rob Sheffield did the same. Chuck Klosterman has built a career on publicly dissecting these decisions.
But just because it’s not an especially original idea doesn’t mean it isn’t true. As Fleming muses above, what you like matters. I build my own lists with great care not just because I assume people will judge me by them, but because I hope they will.
For this same reason, it should come as no surprise that I hate having books or music in storage. If it’s worth owning, it’s worth displaying — you never know who might stop by. My wife once told me I collect books because I like to surround myself with them. She was only half right.
A few years ago, I read an essay in The Atlantic in which the author lamented the advent of the tablet and the iPod because those devices render it impossible to tell what someone is reading or listening to from a distance. His argument runs thusly: if everyone’s bookshelf eventually becomes virtual, then we lose an admittedly incomplete but nonetheless reliable indication of what the person likes and is like. Far from linking him with other likeminded souls, this new technology prevented him from making connections. I tried using the essay with my students, but they just couldn’t relate. I suppose the argument seemed hopelessly quaint to a generation of people who share everything about themselves, all the time.
Here’s an example of what we’ve lost. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Patti Smith recounted a memory of meeting Lou Reed in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel.
“I was carrying a book of poems by Rupert Brooke. He took the book out of my hand and we looked at the poet’s photograph together. So beautiful, so sad. It was a moment of complete peace” (p. 27).
I would’ve experienced the Rapture right then and there.
This post, then, is a way of reclaiming lost ground, with the full understanding of an inherent contradiction: that the very technology that makes this feel necessary to me is the same tool that facilitates discussions about it.
What follows is a recent conversation between me and two college friends of mine — Ian, a suitemate, and Anthony, an Australian exchange student — with whom I’ve remained close, in large part because of our shared enthusiasm for music. We had challenged ourselves to identify our top-twenty favorite albums of our high school years (1985-1989). We chose that era because it represented music that we loved more intensely than anything before or since — largely, I hypothesized, because these albums were released before “The Great Digital Fragmentation.” These were the last albums we could love as whole units. The conversation then evolved into a discussion of our top-ten favorite songs of all time, which was even more free-wheeling…and maddening.
The dialogue here highlights the care and precision (and agony and angst) required in these kind of selections — when albums, books, songs, and John Hughes movies approach the symbolic.
First, the rules:
- The album has to have been released during the years we were in high school (we later felt unduly constrained by this decision, and much teeth gnashing ensued — no Squeeze! — so we punted it.)
- The album has to have influenced your musical tastes (which means you can omit all the lame dance music or obscure knock-off Smiths bands you listened to and at the time loved but are now embarrassed by — I call it the “Erasure Rule”; it could also be called “The Railway Children Rule” or “The Lilac Time Rule.”
The High School Years, 1985-89
(1986) The BoDeans, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams
(1986) Crowded House, Crowded House
(1989) The Connells, Fun & Games
(1987) The Cure, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
(1988) drivin’ n’ cryin’, Whisper Tames the Lion
(1985) Echo & the Bunnymen, Songs to Learn and Sing
(1985) Hoodoo Gurus, Mars Needs Guitars
(1985) INXS, Listen Like Thieves
(1989) Tommy Keene, Based on Happy Times
(1985) Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Easy Pieces
(1986) New Order, Brotherhood
(1985) Oingo Boingo, Dead Man’s Party
(1985) The Outfield, Play Deep
(1986) Pretty In Pink Soundtrack
(1985) R.E.M., Fables of the Reconstruction
(1989) The Reivers, End of the Day
(1989) The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul
(1986) The Smithereens, Especially for You
(1986) The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead
(1985) Talking Heads, Little Creatures
(1987) 10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe
The Songs: (no restrictions, but much metaphysical agonizing)
Ian: I’m obsessing on this top 10 songs thing… just can’t do it. It’s creating a spiritual crisis.
All songs are not equal. But I offer the notion that all GREAT songs are equal. Or should be to the individual.
A truly great song is the ultimate, there’s nothing better, so no other song should be better.
So… even with one person’s limited knowledge, I can still think of dozens, probably hundreds of songs I believe to be actually great. So to rank them…
Is it the ten songs that I love the most right now? The ten songs I loved the most when each particular song meant the most to me in my evolving relationship with it? I can name my favorite ten songs now, but maybe none of them mean as much to me as my favorite 10 meant to me in 1986 or 2001. Or more realistically my ten favorite now mean MORE to me now than my favorites then… but that seems like cheating.
How can I make a list without a Bowie song? Without ten Bowie songs?! ChangesOne Bowie more than any record probably influenced the course of my life to date, but none of those songs are in my current 10.
Can I seriously consider “No Distance Left To Run” by Blur? Yes, I can. That song stabs me in the heart.
It really is maddening!
“Ocean Rain” is on the list. I can tell you that. Does that mean it’s my favorite song?I don’t feel like it is. But it is seriously the only one I think of & don’t doubt immediately. My choices:
Echo & the Bunnymen – “Ocean Rain”
Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is To Fly” is officially on as well.
The Faces – “Ooh La La”
The Band – “It Makes No Difference”
American Music Club – “Firefly”
Steve Earle – “Pilgrim”
Van Morrison – “Into the Mystic”
David Rawlings – “I Hear Them All”
Little Feat – “Willin'”
That’s nine I could live with tonight. At this hour. At this minute.
After all the songs/artists that are important to me on some personal, almost spiritual level, including all those I listed, there is a whole other list of AMAZING songs that I could argue for, even if I don’t have a deep connection to them. See Beatles, Buddy Holly, Zombies, one-offs like Human’ League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” “Life In a Northern Town,” “Spirit In the Sky” … endless.
Anthony: You know, I agree with everything you’ve said.
Your email though has given me a lot to mull over.
The more I thought about the list, the more I realised, top 20 would be easier. That way I could add “Pride” by U2. Or “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins, “In a Big Country” by Big Country, “Run to Paradise” by The Choirboys. “Raspberry Beret” by Prince. I love “Solitary Man” by Neil Diamond or covered by Crooked Fingers. Kate Bush. Nick Drake. Some INXS or Midnight Oil. Some truly great songs that didn’t make the cut.
And like your Bowie stance, I love at least a dozen REM songs, early stuff, mid-career stuff like “Half a World Away” or “World Leader Pretend.” Even their new stuff. All good.
Do I still listen to them all? Well, except for Lloyd Cole, whose songs I don’t actually love with the same intensity that I once did, I still do love these songs.
I’m going to have to think about how to respond. But what a thing to wrestle with!
Lee: (I was on a plane at the time Ian and Anthony were wringing their hands; otherwise, I would’ve joined in.) I’m going to go with these, not in descending order. There’s no way I can cut it to ten.
Two good friends, Jamie and Garrett, alumni of Durham Academy, which is where I work, recently came up with the idea to convene an alumni book club. This idea is hardly revolutionary in and of itself, though it should be fun, as it always is when interesting people get together to quasi-discuss literature. My contribution to the idea was to call the book club “My Favorite Book.” The premise is simple: each book the group reads will be the favorite book of the evening’s host. It will no doubt add an interesting dynamic to the experience, for as you read, you’re continually confronted with the question of why your host picked that particular book. The book becomes a kind of rubric for evaluating the chooser. All book clubs could use the tension born of such scrutiny.
Too bad the process of choosing your favorite book is maddening.
If you care about the decision and what people might think it says about you, the process begins to paralyze you; it’s akin to the embarrassment one feels (or should feel) about being coerced into a public display of affection; part of you might enjoy it, but the exposure will likely make you very self conscious. Your favorite book is a private love affair between you and the author, and revealing it feels unseemly somehow. You also suspect you’re due to be judged for planting this particular intellectual/cultural/psychological flag in the ground and for the unavoidable pretensions such audacity represents.
Favorite books are symbolic and revelatory in ways that other favorite things aren’t. For instance, it’s different from making someone listen to your favorite song or album (playlist?). Reading someone’s favorite book requires real time and energy, and it’s easy to imagine someone reaching the end of your choice and thinking, “Really? He likes this better than To Kill a Mockingbird? What an idiot.”
What is worse, in my case, the people attending the “My Favorite Book” Club are people I really want to impress, and I feel that pressure pushing my selection in different directions. Should I pick something cool and hip, like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (is that book still cool and hip?). Something from the McSweeney’s posse (i.e., something young people find cool and hip)? Something witty and ironic (Vonnegut or something British)? Something intellectual (L’Etranger)? Something canonical? (“Pass the pretzels, folks — time to dive into Madame Bovary!) I grow old, I grow old….
And finally, what constitutes a “favorite?” How can you be sure it’s the one? I remember less than 10% of the fiction I’ve read over the last three decades; surely there are some favorites lost in the ether. Many of the books I’d list as favorites are books I’ve read in the last few years, which makes me suspicious. Most of these books haven’t been with me long enough; we hardly know each other. Is The Swiss Family Robinson actually my favorite book?
But enough. In honor of Rob Fleming, here’s my top-five list of favorite novels.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke): Harry Potter for people who like books.
The Rotters’ Club (Jonathan Coe): a coming-of-age story in 1970s England. Hilarious and moving. Gandalf’s Pikestaff!
The Magus (John Fowles): a mind-blowing journey. Each time I read it, it reveals secrets.
Goodbye, Columbus (Philip Roth) [all-time favorite]: For a certain period of my life, I would give a copy of this book to my girlfriends (who are now, not surprisingly, all ex-girlfriends). As I said, pretensions revealed. Still an amazing novel, though, which Roth published at age 26…and promptly won the National Book Award for fiction. If you’ve ever felt on the outside looking in (and what adolescent hasn’t?), this novel is for you.
Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut): Every college student needs to read Vonnegut.
There it is. Judge…and be judged.
George Awsumb died this week. He taught at Darlington School for many decades; I was lucky enough to have him as a teacher when I was in 9th grade in 1986. He was a great man and someone I revered. Memories of people like George — men and women who had a monumental influence on me as a young person — are a large part of why my love for my alma mater remains strong to this day.
Below is a letter I wrote on the occasion of his retirement from Darlington in 2009. I’m embarrassed that it is in parts far more about me than George, but it was written with affection and respect.
April 13, 2009
I am sorry I won’t be able to attend the official send-off for George and Betsy in May, but I did want to take the occasion to express my gratitude for their guidance and friendship over these many years. Perhaps unbeknownst to him, George was a mentor for me at a time when I was in desperate need of one, and I am glad this event has given me an excuse to thank him for it publicly.
It was, after all, George who cast me (a wholly annoying 7th-grader) as Randolph McAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, not to mention bum #3 in Annie and boy-who-received-box-of-maple-syrup-on-his-birthday in The Music Man. I also played some part in Adaptation, but I can’t remember which. Had I known 7th grade was to be the pinnacle of my artistic output, I might have given “Hymn for a Sunday Evening” a little extra gusto. [Incidentally, David Powell never cast me, probably because the plays he chose were too dark or cynical for a middle schooler who could only hit one note – enthusiasm! When I have nightmares, they feature Enger McCartney and Pete Hobert in Wait Until Dark.]
Afternoons in the Zelle drama room were heady indeed for someone as callow as I was. I fell in love with every female member of each cast as long as she was 1) hopelessly too old for me or 2) hopelessly out of my league, two criteria that often intersected quite neatly. [Forgive the digression, but Shawna Dunderville, my flame still burns brightly for you, just in case you’re wondering – and that jar of cherries was more metaphor than joke.] Despite my romantic shortcomings, and thanks entirely to George, I became friends with (or at least the mascot of) the likes of Tim Harrison, Bates Redwine, Enger McCartney, Catherine A., Marisa Gaba, and Hal Word – heroes to me then, and still. They had their work cut out for them:
Catherine: Listen to this new R.E.M. album [Reckoning]. You need to love it.
Lee: I’m sure I will. And I brought you the new Kenny Loggins.
The image of that crew feverishly studying slides outside his classroom is etched in my brain. George made it cool, and edgy, to appreciate art – a lesson not lost on me. I wasn’t lucky enough to take his AP Humanities course, but I did get to take his Cinema class, which was mind-blowing. I remember we studied Star Wars, The Turning Point, and Paths of Glory, among others. If my own students remember anything we read twenty-three years afterwards, I’ll consider it a major victory.
Finally, there is Scholar Bowl…and the time the Darlington B team almost upset the A team at Berry College (which, if memory serves, would’ve knocked them out of the championship round) if not for the fact that I answered the last question incorrectly. If there is uncertainty out there, the final resting place of Noah’s Ark is actually Mt. Ararat, not Mt. Arafat. I remember looking right at George when I answered it – did I see a ghost of a smile? I am still haunted by that gaffe, and Paul Wang has undoubtedly been plotting a particularly nasty revenge lo these many years.
Looking back on it now, I was a colossal mess when I met George in 1984. My point in taking such pains to prove it here is to show the profound impact George had on me in a relatively short amount of time; my most significant memories from my time as a student at Darlington are all tied to him in some way. More than that, though, what impressed me most about George over the years was his calm patience in response to my untrammeled immaturity, and the example he set as a father, husband, and champion of culture.
George and Betsy, it is with gratitude and affection that I wish you both the very best of luck as you move into your next phase of life. Thank you for everything you have given me.
Lee J. Hark ‘89