Here's A Dean's List To Cozy Up With
©2000 The Boston Globe
FOR NEARLY 20 YEARS, Fr. Neenan HAS CHOSEN THE BOOKS HE LIKES BEST
By Gloria Negri, Boston Globe
When the Rev. William B. Neenan told incoming freshmen at Boston College some 20 years ago to "think about reading a book during your four years here," he never imagined he was starting a B.C. institution.
"I rattled off four or five books I liked and told them B.C. had a big library they should use," recalled Neenan, who was then the dean of B.C.'s College of Arts and Sciences. "The next day, I was telling some of the faculty about my talk and one of them said, 'That's a good idea. Why don't you put out a list of books and call it, the Dean's List?' "
Since his first official "Dean's List" appeared in 1982, its annual July release has become an event eagerly awaited by both students and alumni and, since it was posted online 10 years ago, by the public-at-large. With 128,000 alumni, B.C. gets "a minimum of 10,000 requests for the list each year," said spokesman Jack Dunn. "It's taken on a life of its own," said Dunn of the list, which is issued anew each academic year.
Neenan, who is now vice president and special assistant to the college's president, said his list is not circulated amongst the faculty. And while its members frequently give him suggestions, he doesn't often take them.
"Those have to go before the committee," said the 70-year-old with a chuckle, "and that is a committee of one. Me."
What does it take to make the "Dean's List?" That's easy, he replied with a grin. "That I have to like it."
In 1982, his list had 26 books, an eclectic selection that included "Diary of a Country Priest," by George Bernanos; "A Man for All Seasons," by Robert Bolt; "The Fall," by Albert Camus; "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and "The Power and the Glory," by Graham Greene.
That year, Neenan explained his choices to incoming freshmen with a note: "This list does not represent my candidates for 'Great Books' category. Rather, they are books that I have read over a course of many years that impressed me at the time I read them and continue to do so, at least in memory.
"Absent from the list are the classics, Latin, Greek, Dante and Shakespeare - no need to state the obvious - as well as books of poetry. But don't spurn the poets. Other books are absent either because I have not read them or because they have slipped my mind."
None of the five books he has authored would make the list, said Neenan, a Jesuit priest. They're all on economics, which was his initial field. Neenan has a doctorate in economics from St. Louis University and for 14 years taught at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
His list has been praised by both faculty and students.
"Some of my students see it as a model list," said Professor Frances Restuccia, who teaches women's literature and modernism in B.C.'s English Department. "Father Neenan chooses books that are literary and that investigate relationships among people and get into some of the subtleties of those relationships.
"Despite the fact that most people know him for his jokes and humor, he has a very complex mind," Restuccia said. "He reads in a complex fashion and can really unearth the profundities of literature that can yield meaningful material."
In his second list, Neenan added one more book to make 27. He said it has had 27 books ever since and will remain that way.
"That's three cubed and a mystical number," he said with a smile. Then he added: "I'm making this up, of course, but 'three cubed,' it sounds mystical."
Consequently, if he adds four different books one year, "I knock off four. That's why we have the cumulative list for all the 105 books that have appeared since the beginning."
Neenan's puckish sense of humor is well-known on the B.C. campus, as is he. With his gray hair, his ready smile, and his midwestern friendliness - he's from Sioux City, Iowa - he has become an institution after only 20 years at B.C., a "Mr. Chips" in Roman collar.
"Bill Neenan loves B.C. like no one I've ever met," said Joseph Quinn, dean of B.C.'s College of Arts and Sciences. "He is one of the most beloved figures here."
Neenan is so sought out by students and faculty, Quinn said, "It takes an hour to walk across campus with him" because he's stopped by so many who want to talk with him.
Neenan is so popular he has officiated at about 120 B.C. weddings over the years.
Quinn's friendship with Neenan predates Neenan's 1979 arrival at the school as its first Thomas J. Gasson professor. The two men spent several summers together at the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty starting in the mid-1970s.
"Bill is a well-respected urban economist and a published scholar," Quinn said. "He came to B.C. on a two-year visiting professorship funded by the Jesuit community and, much to our amazement, he was an economist and not a theologian or philosopher."
Quinn sees Neenan's list as "an attempt to open students' eyes to the new and not-so-new, not really classics but maybe classics-to-be, things you might not have thought of, things he has read that made a difference in his life."
Neenan draws on his Jesuit training to make the selections. The ultimate purpose of Jesuit education is to make students free, he said, so that they can make choices about their lives.
"Reading relates to that by allowing one to get out of one's own experience, to vicariously get into another life," he said. "It fosters the imagination so you can think of other options. One of the reasons we think we are unfree in so many ways is that we can't imagine doing things in other ways.
"We can't visualize imaginatively or creatively other options. If you can't, you're sort of locked into what you're doing or how you're behaving. By freeing up the creative imagination, you become a freer person. Some of these books will help you do that."
"Kristin Lavransdatter" by Sigrid Undset is a book Neenan might describe as one of his "hardy perennials, appearing often on his list.
"This is a trilogy set in 14th-century Norway and is about Kristin, who is Lavrans' daughter," he said. "It brings you out of Boston and the year 2000 and into a totally different world and you think, here are people like me with life, death, suffering, faith, loyalty and disloyalty. I think it frees one up to think that there are other ways that people live and have lived than the way I'm living at age 20."
He chose "The Great Gatsby," by F. Scott Fitzgerald "because it is a great American novel." He added James Agee's "A Death in the Family," an autobiographical work about a boy in Nashville in 1915 dealing with the death of his father, to the list because it reminded him of a similar personal experience.
"This touched me because when I was eight or nine, my grandfather died and I experienced the same things as Agee's boy," he explained. "The book frees a person up to grieve, not in a morbid sense, but to see that this is a universal human experience."
He chose "Lucky Jim" by Kingsley Amis because "it is hilarious and I could relate to Jim's experience." Jim botches a visit to the country home of a senior professor he is trying to impress. Neenan said he could identify with that angst "when I was a young assistant professor in Michigan."
Neenan said he has placed Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair," on his list for the first time this year because of interest generated by the recent movie. A previous entry, Greene's "The Power and the Glory," might resurface, he said, in view of this month's election in Mexico, which broke the ruling party's 71-year control over the country.
" 'The Power and the Glory' is the story of a 'whiskey priest' in Mexico in the 1920s during one of the country's anti-clerical periods," said Neenan, who grew up in a political family with a congressman for a godfather. "In spite of his weaknesses, the priest, in the end, is embraced by God. It shows that God's plan is bigger than the weakness of any one priest."
Neenan often uses some of the lessons from books in his homilies at Mass. "The Fall," by Albert Camus, for example, tests one man's choices: whether to save a drowning man or to walk away.
He said he "discovered" Alice McDermott, whose recent novel, "Charming Billy," won the National Book Award, placing it on his current list with her earlier, "At Weddings and Wakes," which made his 1993-'94 list. Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" was on his list in 1998, before all the hoopla around it.
There are books that, in spite of their popularity, Neenan said he would never include on his list. One of those is "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco, which Neenan finds "dull and pretentious."
"Every third page there's a long page in Latin," he said. "I can't believe most people who bought it, read it, but rather that they kept it on their coffee table."
He is as "bemused" about Harry Potter's popularity, as are many.
"I don't know whether it's another 'Name of the Rose,' or not," he said. "I assume these kids are reading it."
Much like he had not intended for his "Dean's List" to garner such a following, Neenan had not meant to stay at Boston College when he came two decades ago. Midway through his visiting professorship, however, he was asked to be dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. After eight years in that position, he became its academic vice president and dean of faculties for 11 years.
"I was going to be at B.C. for two years and then go back and spend the rest of my life in Ann Arbor," he said. "But I fell in love with B.C. and its students. I saw its incredible potential. In the last 20 years, it has gone from being a significant regional university to being a national Catholic university."
For Neenan, reading - newspapers in the morning and books at night - remains a daily habit. He reads a lot more on weekends and vacations, he said, but, "at least 25 minutes a night on a book. That covers a lot of pages over 300 days. More than that, though," he said, "and I doze off."