Sept. 21, 2006 • Volume 15 Number 2

William J. Neenan, SJ

Four New Entries Make the 2006 'Dean's List'

By William J. Neenan, SJ

A century ago the Chicago Cubs were about to win their last World Series, good conversation could be had in any corner pub, Afghanistan was renowned for its rugs, environmentalism was yet to be created and Henry Ford was about to establish Detroit as the automobile capital of the world.

A century later the Cubs have yet to win another World Series, conversation has been reduced to shouting on the radio, Afghanistan is a war zone, the environment has become a cause, and the world's automobile capital is either in Japan or somewhere in Tennessee.

The four new titles on the 2006 Dean's List cast at least an oblique light on these developments of the past century. Stephen Miller's Conversation: A History of a Declining Art is a rambling, that is, conversational walk through the history of this art form from the practice in the 16th century to its present status in the 21st century. If, as the philosopher Oakeshott put it, "Conversation distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian," one might well conclude that today the barbarian is firmly ensconced within our citadel.

The novels joining this year's Dean's List offer two windows on the human condition that suggest there are constant human values that survive the vicissitudes of the centuries.

Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner is the powerful story of two boys from different backgrounds and divergent destinies coming of age in the midst of the Afghan turmoil of recent decades. The metaphor of kite flying which is central in this novel reminded me of contests depicted by Homer in his Greek epics and that human nature has been torn by violence and redeemed by loyalty for over three thousand years.

In The Tree-Sitter, Suzanne Matson [Matson is a professor of English at Boston College] spins an engrossing tale of young love intertwined with idealism. Saving a Douglas fir in an Oregon forest? Sounds noble enough especially when you and a companion are romantically involved. But, alas, as too often happens the real world of choice and difficult decisions emerge to disrupt this Eden for the tree-sitter and her friend. And again are in the midst of a human quandary that transcends any particular century or culture.

Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, is, as the irreverent title might suggest, a fascinating application of the tools of an economist to address such questions as "Do parents really matter?" "What do real estate agents and Ku Klux Klan have in common?" I readily admit to a predisposed bias in these matters but I am confident any reasonably intelligent reader will enjoy Freakonomics. Believe me. And after reading this book your assignment will be to report on the causes for the transformation of the automobile industry.

And now to the Chicago Cubs. Do they exist simply to remind of us why everyone needs a next year?

-Fr. Neenan is vice president and special assistant to the president. He has issued his annual Dean's List of recommended reading annually since he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in the early 1980s.

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