Big Books Issue
Freeman Hrabowski III
President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Published: September 28, 2011
City Paper: What are you reading right now?
Freeman Hrabowski: I recently read David Brooks’ The Social Animal and I enjoyed it. And I just started reading Tom Friedman’s new book That Used to Be Us.
CP: Can you think back on a book that really struck you as a young man?
FH: I was fortunate to have a mother who was an English teacher so I was always reading at home. I remember even as a kid being intrigued by the influence of Dostoevsky on Ralph Ellison. I’d read Invisible Man and was trying to understand where he got the idea, about how people look through each other or don’t see people based on certain biases. And that’s when I started struggling with Notes From the Underground by Dostoevsky. My mother wanted me to understand that those African-American writers were actually influenced by people like Dostoevsky.
CP: What about your favorite children’s book?
FH: The Velveteen Rabbit. I’ve always enjoyed that. I used it with my son years ago. But I was reading older books even as a kid. As you might expect, I was reading stuff involving the civil rights movement because I was a child leader, so I was reading stuff that King was writing, that Benjamin Mays was writing, people like that. So I would say nothing impressed me more than reading somebody’s story, biographies, because it showed how different people were as adults than when they were kids.
CP: What was the last great biography you read?
FH: Alexander Hamilton. He was such a brilliant man who had so many flaws and he had a major impact on American society, more than we realize. And yet he was clearly the product of his childhood experiences, very insecure in many ways, always trying to cover up his mistakes. He could never think he was protesting too much, and yet he was absolutely brilliant. And more recently I’ve been reading David McCullough’s biography of Truman, primarily because somebody asked me who was president when I was born and I had to think about it.
CP: Is there a genre of book that’s a guilty pleasure for you?
FH: I love 19th-century British literature. Thackeray and Dickens and I love the Brontë sisters. I enjoy the pace of that period. I enjoy thinking about someone who gets a letter and waits days before opening it. It’s unimaginable now. The book that I’m reading often with students is The Columbian Orator. I recently read a book called Giants. It was about the parallel lives of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. And in that book, I learned that people—particularly boys—at the time who wanted to be great leaders all read one book in the early part of the 19th century. It was called The Columbian Orator. And the idea that Frederick Douglass had seen white boys reading it even when he was a slave and after the mistress taught him to read, he read that book. It is a collection of the greatest speeches up until that time. And so I use it with students. And we read, for example, Cicero. It’s great to have a soccer player reading aloud from Cicero.
CP: Did your mother read aloud to you?
FH: Oh, we read aloud. We were reading Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen at home, and Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. As a child my mother would sometimes punish me with language using characters from books I’d read. I’d be embarrassed for my friends to know that I knew who she was talking about. “Don’t be like Raskolnikov!”
CP: When do you read?
FH: I read a lot on planes. And I never go to sleep without doing some reading. And on vacations, I’ll read a couple of books a day. I just want to be a vegetable and sit there and read. I exercise and read and look at the water, that’s all I do. I’ll read sometimes three books a week, because whenever I go to give a speech or something I’ll be reading, because it takes me away from the regular world.
CP: Are there books that you reread?
FH: I’ve reread many of the classics. I took time after grad school to take courses in 18th- and 19th-century literary criticism. I still struggle with T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” I’ve spent a lot of time on Pope’s “Essay on Man” and I really enjoy Thackeray. In my teenage years, James Baldwin, of course, and The Fire Next Time and Go Tell it on the Mountain.
CP: Are there books you feel you should read but have never gotten around to?
FH: A world filled with them, an absolute world, that’s all I can say. I read with a mentee recently, I reread Anna Karenina. I was amazed at how differently I viewed Anna Karenina this time than when I read it years and years ago. That’s the other point about reading a novel 30 years later; you bring to the book so many experiences with people. It just makes such a difference, when you can see the experiences of others through your own set of lenses, which will have been influenced by your own experiences.
CP: Do you have an e-reader?
FH: I’ve got a Kindle, but I don’t use it often. I see a lot of folks using them and I think it’s great. I’m enjoying being as old-fashioned as long as I can. I enjoy folding the page over, I enjoy turning the page. I look at a screen so often, all day at work, that it’s a different kind of pleasure. I sort of enjoy being out of date in a time that insists upon technology for everything.
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