What Was Your Best Homework Assignment? How Machiavelli Got Me Started on Reading Lists

On Friday, February 21, 1991, I was looking through a copy of USA Today in my high school library and ran across a story on page 8B entitled “Ancient Warrior in Persian Gulf, by Julia Lawlor.

The article was about how U.S. Marines were reading Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The article also talked about how The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi was popular and being read by managers.

Being someone with the goal of getting out of my little town and becoming someone of influence, I took note of the books, and wanted to read them. But the first paragraph in the article was one that would lead to many things.

“The writings of a 2,400-year-old Chinese warrior/philosopher could join Machiavelli’s The Prince as required reading in the executive suite.”

The high school librarian, Irene, Conable, a well-educated and sophisticated woman who knew that a lot of us small town kinds could use some culture and literature in our lives encouraged me to read all three. But of the three, the only one in the library at the time was The Prince. So, I went and got a copy of a paperback off the shelf and read the back. It had the following quote:

“For my part, I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly.”

It was about this time that the choral teacher, Suzanne Camino, came in and saw me looking at the book. She also thought that we kids should learn more about music, the arts, literature, philosophy, and the outside world. But seeing me holding that and looking at the quote, she was a little dismayed. Note that I was not one of her students — I have no ear for music. But she knew me and knew I was not a total delinquent. She was getting things together to take her chorus out to sing somewhere and had a bunch of permission slips. On the back of one of the sheets, she wrote me a reading list.

Suzanne Camino Reading List 1991

This is the list that really got me started on thinking about great books lists and reading them. The list has informed my participation in the “Great Conversation” because it was a response to something else. It was instrumental in my life, and I have read almost everything on it. One of the things that she said to me is that I would need to read these books again at different times in my life because they would have different meanings. I thought about that as I re-read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters just before my own wedding and felt like I understood it for the first time. I have changed so much since then, I ought to take another look at some of these books. I notice that I never read A River Runs Through It. I should fix that soon.

What is funny is that at one point she told me “This is not a homework assignment, you know.” But I have to say, it was the best homework assignment I ever got.

(As an aside, I still have the original paper list, and the USA Today article. I am a bit of an archivist.)


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