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Northwestern University
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Which Book Changed Your Life?

Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

Dan O’Keefe ’93 - Mutual Fund Manager

The Old Man and the Sea has been meaningful throughout my life because it was so different from the books I’d read before, which were verbose and descriptive and dense. To read Hemingway after Stendhal and Dostoevsky was really a shock — a revolution in understanding how so much less can be so much more. I’m an investor, and the ability to communicate the essentials is important in my business and personal life. A lot of information is thrown at you, and the amount can seem overwhelming. The job of the intelligent investor is to focus only on what’s essential, and then to communicate your conclusions clearly. I learned from Hemingway that if you choose your words carefully, you can have a greater impact.

The Confessions of St. Augustine

John WynneAssociate Professor of Classics

I first read Augustine’s Confessions as an undergrad and have read it a number of times since then. It takes some initial work to see that even though he’s writing in the form of a prayer, he’s considering big questions: Where does evil come from? Can we know anything? How do we acquire wisdom? And, of course, is there a God, and if so, what is he like?

Plato's The Republic

Laurie Zoloth - Professor of Religious Studies

In my junior year of high school, I was recruited into an honors seminar that met early in the morning to read philosophy. We began with Plato and read The Republic out loud. We were stunned awake by the text, the quick wit, the compelling logic of a real argument, and the intriguing idea of philosopher-scholars running the world. It was the first primary text I had read closely and completely, the first serious argument about the idea of “the good society.” We would shout out the lines to each other, taking parts, and then stop and argue: How should you live? What if your city is unjust? How did you know? It interrupted the chaos of adolescence in 1967, and the steadily mounting war in Vietnam. Plato gave us a language for thinking, for questioning everything, which we, of course, began to do in earnest. It created a world in which ethical challenges were seriously considered, where we entered as citizens, with a duty to stand up and speak.

A 15-cent picture book

Indira RamanProfessor of Neurobiology

When I was 3, my father used to buy little 15-cent picture books for my 5-year-old brother and me. My brother, who was learning to read, would sit on the couch with my father and a book. I would perch behind them and watch as they sounded out words. I happily memorized the stories, but I didn’t really understand what they were doing. One day, when I was alone, I noticed a new little book with horses and letters on the cover. Looking at the letters, I felt as if I heard someone say the word “ponies.” I opened the book and discovered that the letters made words I could hear in my mind! I suddenly realized that the letters formed a code that could tell people things. And that I could read them, too! Ponies had permanently and wonderfully changed my life.

Jack Kerouac's On the Road 

Neha Guddeti Reddy ’16 - Anthropology 

This novel depicts one of the most entertaining rejections of the mundane, structured routines that define most of our lives. Rather than settling down and working 9 to 5, Sal and Dean remind us what it means to live, to genuinely wonder, and to crave new experiences.

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland

Gary Saul MorsonProfessor of Slavic Languages and Literature

I had never liked reading as a child, but when I was 10 I picked up Alice in Wonderland. I had never realized that something could be so funny and fun in its sheer flight of nonsense. It turned common sense on its head and followed it through to its absurd conclusions. It was the first time it occurred to me that reading literature could be a joy.

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