About the "Dean's List"
"If truth be told, one of my early memories of reading would be at age 8 or 9 lying abed on a summer morning reading the Baseball Almanac and baseball averages."
That idyllic reminiscence of a childhood in Iowa conjures up a picture of sheer pleasure; William Neenan’s face lights up and his voice grows joyful when he talks about reading. He made a conscious decision to become a reader. "I didn’t begin at age 5, 6, or 7, but I began at age 31 or 32, I think, seriously reading."
Fr. Neenan, then a young Jesuit finishing his doctoral work in economics, realized he missed reading for pleasure.
"For a few years, I really didn’t read a novel or a historical book on anything, and I said, 'I don't want to live like this.'"
"I decided I was going to read 15 or 20 minutes every night before going to bed. And if you live a long time you can do a lot of reading that way."
Having, in fact, lived many years, Fr. Neenan has proven that method to be true. And at Boston College he has passed along that love of reading for more than 25 years by issuing "The Dean’s List," an annual answer to the question, "Neenan, have you read a good books lately?"
The title is a play on the term that usually denotes a roster of academic excellence. It was suggested by a fellow faculty member, Paul Doherty, after Fr. Neenan, then the new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, first spoke to incoming freshmen and urged them to investigate the University Library by reading a few books not required for their courses.
"In the course of the talk, I told them that we had gone to great effort to build up a large library collection at the University, and since they were going to have four years here, it might be good if they read a book or two. And I named a couple of titles."
"I have always been enamored of lists. Years ago in the hedgerows surrounding the Cathedral of the Epiphany grade school in Sioux City, I was known as something of a child prodigy when it came to lists – the principal exports of Ceylon (tea, rice and citronella) or the Big Five Rivers of Iowa (Big Sioux, Cedar, Des Moines, Iowa and the Raccoon) are the two that come to mind. So for my welcoming speech to freshmen I naturally play to my strength: hand out a list."
As with each version of "The Dean’s List" since 1983, there are 27 titles. Fr. Neenan has explained at various times, sometimes with tongue in cheek, that he picked the number 27 because it’s "three cubed, a mystical number." Some books have remained on the list since its inception; others are one-year wonders. "The Dean’s List" is eagerly anticipated by the entire University community every year, and Fr. Neenan discusses the new books in an article for the Boston College Chronicle early each fall, commenting on why they've gained a spot on his reading roster.
But the fame of the "The Dean’s List" doesn’t stop at the campus borders – the list has gained fame outside of Boston College. There have been articles about Fr. Neenan and his literary leanings in the Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the National Catholic Register. Each year the college gets numerous requests for the list from around the country. Said Fr. Neenan in a Heights article, "I get stories about people who print it out, put it on their fridge, and check them off as they read them."
Is Fr. Neenan trying to compete with Oprah? The Booker Prize?
"My choices do not necessarily represent my nominations for literary awards. They simply are my recommendations for an evening of good reading. They might not all be 'Great Books,' but they are great books."
Asked to reflect on why he reads, Fr. Neenan responds, "[It] transports a person to another world and it enhances the imagination. We live in a certain quotidian world which can become very one dimensional because it’s all you know, but by reading fiction, good fiction, you can get transported to another dimension. You can imagine another way of doing things."
On the spirituality of reading, Fr. Neenan once commented, "I’m a Jesuit, I'm a Catholic and I’m an incarnational Catholic and I believe that as such I find God in ordinary circumstances. I find God talking with other people; I find him in these quotidian experiences. But in order to do that, I have to reflect, that is pray, so that when I am face to face with ordinary circumstances I can recognize the face of God in the neighbor that I’m talking with or the challenge of God in the circumstance that I find myself in."