Why I Admire Mark Zuckerberg's "Year of Books"

7:21 PM

As soon as I learned in January that Mark Zuckerberg commited to a "Year of Books," I decided to accompany him. Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, seems a very smart, creative person who also aims to make a difference in the world (for instance, launching http://www.fwd.us/ to advocate for immigration reform). Zuckerberg described his project as:
My challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week -- with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.
Given who he is and those simple words, I was onboard.

My undergraduate studies were in the Program of Liberal Studies (P.L.S.) at the University of Notre Dame. While many had suspicions what P.L.S. might signify-- including the more tame Probably Law School or Pretty Late Sleepers-- it was a dynamic laboratory for learning. Launched in 1950, based on similar programs at the University of Chicago and Columbia, P.L.S.'s heart is the Great Books seminar, a sequence of six semesters of chronologically reading major texts from the Western tradition, along with a few works from the Eastern traditions. In the seminars, professors do not lecture. Everyone, professor and students alike, learn from the Great Books and from one another. As well, students take tutorials that offer deeper ventures into poetry, literature, theology, philosophy, science, political theory, the fine arts, and intellectual and cultural history. Frankly, I believe that P.L.S. is a tremendous opportunity to develop a broad intellectual background along with abilities to read texts critically, to formulate cogent arguments, and to communicate clearly.

So, I love reading lists. Critical, deep reading requires that one, first, read the book. Second, it requires thinking about the book, wrestling with its themes. Third, it requires doing that wrestling with others, engaging them. Reading with others, reading in community, is a critical and valuable component of reading.

Naturally, Zuckerberg's list will include few books that are regarded as classics. So far, only Thomas S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was among my readings in P.L.S. The list also has numerous works that are not my normal fare. I have two principal questions about these readings:
  1. How might the effort to read these works change me?
  2. How can I engage in a genuine dialog with others about these works?
To the first question, let me begin by noting that I have enjoyed Zuckerberg's selections so far. Committing myself to read Zuckerberg's selections has brought me to see the world more deeply through eyes very different from my own. I hope that his choices will allow me to probe more deeply in significant questions of our time. I hope that I will grow in knowledge, but I hope for more than that. I hope that these works, in some little way, help me to be a better human being. Perhaps they may give me more patience and understanding for views that are not my own. Perhaps they will give me insight into my heart's desire.

A book can change us in a way that is similar to travel. We can go somewhere to say that we have seen it, purchasing the tchotchke in the gift shop and taking the obligatory selfie. Or we can experience a place, let it into us, allow it to change us. The difference is not as extreme as it might seem. Everything we read changes us, for better or worse.

Second, in a world where so much communication is limited to sound bites on television with looping of cellphone footage, a "share" on Facebook, or a 140-character Tweet, the long form of a book invites sustained dialog, a dialog that we so very need in the United States. Though I am reading these works alone, I will share some reflections about each work in the hopes that I, too, may engage in a dialog around the selected works. I sincerely hope that others will share how these books have struck them, touched them. Together, these books may give us a different way of looking at the world. We may encounter a different way of reading newspapers, watching the news, and of seeing what's happening in our world. Seeing things afresh, perhaps, we will discover new, richer ways of acting to produce a more just, humane world.

So, I invite you to peruse my reflections on the books in Zuckerberg's list. Please, join in. Feel free to leave comments on each posting about a book. Share links to other interesting commentaries on these books. Let's see if we can inspire some conversation around important and worthy topics.

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