James O. Freedman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Liberal Arts and Higher Education: Conversation with James O. Freedman, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, former President of Dartmouth and of the University of Iowa; 4/18/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Books and Writers

As I look at your life and your writings, it's really a story, as you said, of understanding how to educate yourself; how to create a community for education, and how to secure an environment in which students will be prepared for life. Let's talk a little about this love affair that you have with books, which I think is a phase in that set of concerns about education. You are a collector. Tell us a little about books and what they have meant for you beyond just reading them.

There are, of course, single books -- individual books -- that all of us find at some point in our life and we reread once every two or three years for the rest of our life. And I have half-a-dozen of such books. But I have loved collecting books. I don't know how that relates to being, as some people are, a collector of stamps or of antique cars, or of pressed flowers or what, but I have loved collecting books. I have an elaborate scheme of organization and then codification, and have something now on the order of 6,000 books.

Oh, my goodness.

Although, every two, three, four years, I sell a thousand of them because I just don't have room. It's like giving up a child, but I just don't have room. And your interests change; books that interested you thirty years ago interest you less today.

What writers stand out in your mind? There must be an enormous number for someone like you, but which have remained key?

Well, key books; I would say Camus is one and The Plague would be the pivotal book. Faulkner is, of course, one, and, gosh, anything with Faulkner is one. I love the short stories of Faulkner. I love Hawthorne and I love, oh, The Blithedale Romance even more than I love The Scarlet Letter -- both wonderful books. I very much like V.S. Naipaul. I think his books are just brilliant. But there are many ... you know, the authors could go on.

You write, "Books earn their claim on our lives by their power to help us to think, to care, and to acquire standards of judgment and appreciation." So it's a program of continuous education, really?

All of us have read books that we never quite forget. I saw a reference a day or two ago some place in the papers to Of Mice and Men -- the Steinbeck book, and Lenny in there. After you've read that book, you never again can be quite as callous as perhaps you once were to people who are, perhaps, a bit retarded, perhaps a bit slow, but are kindly and nice people. It affects you. It affects everything you look at after that.

It's not just the story, the idea, that moves you, but it's also the use of words, the use of language?

Oh, sure it is. I mean there's not a parent, I think, who, if you read King Lear in your adulthood, doesn't ask himself lots and lots of questions of how did Lear go wrong with his daughters. And, gosh, the lines from Lear that come out: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." The language is not beatable.

As an undergraduate, I had two courses with Northrup Frye, the great scholar of so much of literature. And he used to say that an economy of words in expressing the thought is one of the greatest achievements. And, of course, the quintessential example is, "To be or not to be." You probably can't express that idea better than that brief collection of words.

You are a craftsman with the word, as I read your essays.

Thank you.

Do you think that comes from -- to use the metaphor you used yesterday -- "the passing of the Jade," that you have acquired a skill with writing by reading so much?

I don't know if it was that as much as it was going to law school. I think law school makes you aware of words. There was a famous episode, I'm not sure that it's in the book, when Abe Fortes was being nominated for the Supreme Court. He was asked a question in the Judiciary Committee about a phrase like "due process of law," and he couldn't answer it, or he wouldn't answer it. He didn't believe it wise to answer it. And the senators kept pressing him. "Look, it's only a few words; I mean, after all." And Fortes replied and said, "Sir, I have made my living with words, and I can tell you every single word is tricky, and it's a well of meaning and you've got to be very careful." So I think law school really made me conscious of how to use words. It made me aware that you need ten drafts of anything you write, and it does get better. You put the adjectives in and then you take them out.

What is the most important thing a student must know about writing? The patience, the perseverance, the need for rewrite?

All of those, but I think most of all, the right word. I mean, I, again and again am puzzled in my own writing by how to find the right adjective. Did someone say something sharply or bitterly, or quickly or glibly? To find the right adverb, I find enormously challenging and difficult.

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