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opular opinion has it that engineers don’t read much beyond C++ code. As I
glance at the books lining the shelves in my office, with topics ranging from
World War I history to photography to Shakespeare, I must beg to differ.
In fact, when I moved into the President’s House nearly eight years ago, my sole
request was to add shelves to contain what is now a 5,000-volume library. I must
confess that quite a few are still in boxes! Books on cooking share space with those
on economics and political science — and with literary classics, many of which are
beautifully bound and printed. I appreciate my books’ aesthetic quality almost as
much as I do their content.
But having an appreciation for the beauty of “analogue” hard-copy books
doesn’t mean I shun digital technology. For 35 years, first as an undergraduate,
then as a professor and vice provost, I watched, firsthand, the growth of Silicon
Valley. Some might say I became a digital geek, as I was not a digital native the
way our current students are. (My first digital device was a Texas Instruments
calculator, which my dad bought for me during my senior year in high school.)
Although I have embraced today’s digital innovations, they are, in my eyes, no
substitute for good “old-fashioned” books.
That’s not to say I spent my early years with my nose in a book. In fact, I was a
late bloomer in that regard. It wasn’t until my first year in my doctoral program,
when I read Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe, that I really caught the book
bug. All of a sudden, my interest in reading exploded, and for the rest of my life I
have sought to expand my reach, widely reading books of many sorts, from Jane
Austen to John le Carré, Isaac Asimov to Edmund Wilson. I also subscribe to
some 50 periodicals; I’ve been telling students for 30 years that they must spend
at least 30 minutes per week with The Economist.
I tell you this because I sincerely believe that life is most enriched when we
dwell in both worlds, the digital and the analogue. I know this has been true for
me in my career and personal life, as it was for Steve Jobs, who in his iconic 2008
commencement speech at my alma mater talked about taking a calligraphy course
at Reed College. This ancient ink-on-paper art greatly informed the aesthetic
sensibility he brought to the beautiful typography designed for the Macintosh
computer. Jobs illustrated how important it was to have a foot in both the
analogue and digital worlds.
Jobs’ example is one I frequently invoke, especially when talking with our
students, who often prefer their sleek and lightweight devices to the older and
bulkier deliverers of content. I hope they will, as I did during my college days,
learn to toggle between both worlds.
For decades I have urged students to read broadly beyond what is required
in class to build their best possible futures. I hope that they will discover the
pleasures — aesthetic, intellectual and emotional — of an artfully produced book,
much as I did so many years ago.