The List Goes On...and On

The List Goes On...and On

Fr. Neenan's annual survey of good books finds a new audience

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

A generation of BC students has fondly regarded him, in one journalist's memorable phrase, as "Mr. Chips in a Roman collar."

Now, thousands of outside readers are coming to know Vice President and Assistant to the President William B. Neenan, SJ, as Boston College's answer to Bennett Cerf.

William B. Neenan, SJ

The annual "Dean's List" of recommended books that Fr. Neenan distributes to incoming freshmen each fall has been the topic of recent articles in the Boston Sunday Globe, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the National Catholic Register.

With the publicity, the genial Jesuit has found himself fielding requests from across the country for his literary picks.

"I was out of town when the story ran in the Globe" in late July, he said in a recent interview. "My little brother picked it up on the Web in North Carolina. Others have read it online. I started getting letters.

"I got a couple today. One was from Waterbury, Conn. A woman there saw the list in the National Catholic Register and was asking for a copy."

He said he hasn't quite known what to make of the attention, but acknowledged: "It's a delight."

Fr. Neenan said he came up with the idea for a "Dean's List" nearly 20 years ago when he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and seeking a way to capture the attention of incoming freshmen.

"'You're going to need to read a book or two,'" he recalled telling new students, "'and we've got a big library here.' So I decided to do a list."

He has kept the tradition - and the "Dean's List" name - during an 11-year run as academic vice-president and dean of faculties from 1987-98, and for the past two years as vice president and assistant to University President William P. Leahy, SJ.

Books on the list annually number 27 - or "the mystical three-cubed," in Fr. Neenan's words - and reflect Fr. Neenan's tastes in novels, biography and history.

"These aren't the Great Books," he said, "but an answer to the question, 'Neenan, have you read any good books lately?'"

The first list in 1982 contained such works as Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, Albert Camus' The Fall and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The more than 100 books that have appeared on the list over the years have ranged from Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind (1987) to Bill Watterson's The Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book (1996).

The choices, he admits, are thoroughly subjective. "A couple of Jesuits at St. Mary's want to know why I don't have more arts or music reviews," he said. "I tell them I don't read those kinds of books.

"Most of my reading is done 20 minutes before I go to sleep," Fr. Neenan said. "That rules out Russian novels with long names and intricate plots. Also, I don't do poetry. Beowulf is on the list only because I know Seamus Heaney."

His choices have sometimes occasioned good-natured teasing. "One colleague asks if I've ever read the Kuala Lumpur phone book," said Fr. Neenan. "I say, 'Send it over and I'll review it.'"

One perennial pick some consider an acquired taste is Kristin Lavransdatter, 1928 Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset's 1,300-page trilogy on a woman's life in 14th-century Scandinavia.

"We talk a lot about multiculturalism today," he said. "Well, medieval Christian Norway is a totally different world from anything any of us have ever experienced."

Besides, he explained, "I've always been fascinated by Norway and fjords."

The interest stems from his boyhood in landlocked Sioux City, Iowa, he said, when his grandfather, an engineer on the Great Northern Railroad, promised to take him someday to the railroad's terminus in Seattle, launching point for travel to Alaska.

"Shangri-La, to me, was a place of ice and mountains," he said.

Sparking the imagination through books remains the object of his "Dean's List," he said, as well as a treasured part of his own daily regimen.

"I set aside 20-25 minutes a night," Fr. Neenan said. "If you live long enough, you can get a lot of reading done."

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