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My reading life: James O'Rourke IV '68

by Christine Cox

June 30, 2014

Tag: Alumni

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This interview launches a new feature about what Mendoza professors read.

Ask James O’Rourke IV ’68 about books and you’ll hear everything from a touching story about a woman who personally shopped for books for him in Cambridge, England; a rundown of his daily reading routine; a few rants about Jeff Bezos and Amazon; and a confession about his inability to get rid of his piles of books.

The sole author, coauthor or directing editor of 17 books and more than 250 case studies, O’Rourke is a teaching professor of management and the Arthur F. and Mary J. O'Neil Director of the Fanning Center for Business Communication.  He teaches communication courses to most undergraduate and graduate students at Mendoza, where he has taught for 24 years.

In this Q&A, O’Rourke gives a glimpse of how bone-deep reading and communication are to his life.

What do you read regularly?

My guiding premise is that if you want to become a better writer you should read better writing.  So I seek out sources that I know have good writers.  Each morning I read The New York Times before I go to class.

Usually over lunch I read The Wall Street Journal.  In the evening I read the local paper, The South Bend Tribune, so I know what’s going on locally.  I then wait until after dinner to get to the Financial Times.  And I don’t read everything.  I read all of the headlines.  For half the stories, I’ll read the first paragraph, and for three or four select stories, I read all of it.  And I have some favorite columnists, Gillian Tett, James Mackintosh.  I think the writing in the FT is really quite good.

I read a number of magazines, some weekly, some monthly.  I look quickly through Bloomberg Businessweek.  I still look at Fortune.  I look at The Economist, and at The New Yorker.  I choose at least one New Yorker story a week to read the whole of the story.  My favorite New Yorker writer is Jeffrey Toobin.  He’s awfully good.

I look at a number of blogs, including Bloomberg.  I check in on the HBR (Harvard Business Review) blogs.  The daily HBR blogs have several sections, the Daily Idea, the Daily Stat and then a few features that are focused on research that has practical applications for managers.  Then, I’ll look at Gizmodo, which is about tech devices, and Jalopnik, which is about cars.

What have you read recently?

I try to read one hardcover book a month.  I don’t always succeed.  In the summer or over Christmas break I can sometimes do three or four a month.  That gives me 15 to 18 titles a year, so I try to choose carefully.

Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath is really interesting.  It’s filled, of course, with Gladwell anecdotes but they’re all cleverly written; they’re interesting and highly entertaining.

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow looks at cognitive processing, looks at how we perceive, process, learn, recall and forget.  There’s a lot of new information in Kahneman’s work and it’s very accessible.

Michael Thomasello has written a book just released by Harvard University Press, A Natural History of Human Thinking.  It really is, frankly, evolution’s way of saying, “Here’s our principal advantage.  First we had opposable thumbs, now we have a frontal cortex.  There are a lot of animals that can outrun us, but not many that can outthink us.”  It also has important implications for education.  What do we keep?  What do we toss out?  What do we refine?  And how do we pass that to the next generation of young philistines who know absolutely nothing?

How do you choose books?

There are three ways to choose books; one of them is seriously imperiled.  And that is to go into a bookstore and pick up a few and thumb through them and see what you get.  There is a serendipity to a bookstore, finding a book that you would never have known about sitting right next to the one you think you want.  But bookstores are an endangered species thanks to Jeff Bezos and everyone else who thinks they can deliver groceries by drone, and that we don’t need bookstores.  It’s really disconcerting.  I love bookshops.

I read the reviews of new titles that are thoroughly and thoughtfully done.  I look at The New York Times Book Review, I look at the weekly book reviews in The Wall Street Journal.  Those are quite good.  And I look at the reviewers in the FT because they include a number of British publishers that I would not otherwise hear about.

I do ask my friends what they’re reading, and I keep a very, very wide, eclectic group of friends that I talk to nearly every day, by phone and by e-mail.  I probably make a dozen calls a day and maybe that many e-mails and just check in with people and ask how they’re doing and what they’re reading.

I had a dear friend at Bowes & Bowes booksellers in Cambridge (England).  Her name was Josephine Dawson and we met in the summer of 1979.  She looked for books for me for more than a dozen years.  She would go to estate sales, she would look for interesting titles and mail those to me.  She would say, “Oh, Mr. O’Rourke went to Christ’s College, I know he’d like this book; it’s about Sir John Plumb.”  Or she’d pick up books by a professor of mine, S. Gorley Putt.  Mr. Putt taught language and literature at Cambridge, and she knew that I had an affection for him.

She was on the money with her choices, and it was a good business model for the owners.  More to the point, Mrs. Dawson got a book into the hands of someone she knew would appreciate it.  I didn’t hear from her one year [1992], so I wrote.  The manager wrote back to me and said she had died.  The news was crushing.  I enjoyed long conversations with her.

I desperately miss Mrs. Dawson and her kind help.  And now what I get is Amazon saying, “Oh you might like this.”  Yeah, well, I might not.  I don’t think Amazon’s software is nearly as good as Mrs. Dawson.

Do you go to the library often?

I’m a bookstore guy, not a library guy.  It’s a failing, a character flaw.  I buy books and keep them and then my wife gathers up books she thinks I might like to give away.  She’ll come up with a list of a dozen or 15.  So I’ll pull out two or three and say, “No you can’t give these away.  The rest are fine.”

Are there books everyone should read?

It’s presumptuous of me to say every human should read through a particular book.  You have different interests, you’re just a different person.  But I think there are some books that are really damn good.  I think the best piece of fiction written in our language in the 20th century was The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles.  Brilliant book, absolutely brilliant.  It’s a book about writing books in which he takes time out to explain the process along the way.

Why do you read so much about the brain?

I’m interested in how we learn because our behavior is a function of what we know.  And I’m interested as a teacher in how I can make the process of learning less painful for students, more productive, more interesting.

There are some works that are so thought-provoking, they deserve a couple of reads.  One of them is a book by Julian Jaynes, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Princeton [now deceased].  And the title of his book is The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  His theory is that early humanoids had bicameral brains, that is, two halves that were unconnected.  The corpus callosum is the tissue mass that now connects those two hemispheres.  And it made them very, very different people from the people we know today.  It’s a book worth reading.

Do you read more fiction or nonfiction?

I’ve got to roll in a good novel now and again.  But I read mostly nonfiction.  You know, Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money is awfully good.  It gives you a sense not only of how modern commerce and banking developed, but it’s also about human behavior and human greed.  And it shows us how all of  those function interdependently.

Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace by Joseph Williams [University of Chicago] is as good as anything ever written about how to write.

Do you prefer reading or writing?

Writing is hard work.  Anyone who tells you differently either (a) is lying to you, or (b) has never written anything.  So it’s far easier to read than it is to write.  But there’s a certain sense of satisfaction that comes with having produced a really good piece that will be valuable to someone, that will move information or move them to action.  So, good writing is more satisfying than just reading, but it’s a lot more work.