Reading Matters

Doug Orr’s five most memorable books

KON-TIKI, by Thor Heyerdahl. Norwegian explorer and anthropologist Heyerdahl believed that South Americans in pre-Columbian times could have sailed west over 4300 miles and settled in the Polynesian Islands. So he built the Kon-Tiki raft with the material and technology of that earlier time and with five companions made the long south Pacific journey in 101 days. This was my first substantive book as a youngster, and it fired my imagination about far-away exotic places and explorations into the unknown - qualities that persisted through subsequent years. Heyerdahl’s sense of wonder, which resounded with me profoundly, even turned to the stars later in life, and how appropriate that one of his last honors was the official naming of one of the heaven’s brightest asteroids – the 2473 Asteroid Heyerdahl, which is still circumnavigating the earth. I like to think that I occasionally catch a glimpse in the night sky.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS, by Charles Dickens. Often considered Dickens penultimate work in a prolific lifetime, it tells the story of orphaned Pip growing up and achieving great wealth but losing his bearings and friends along the way. Dickens filled the pages with universal themes and human conditions: ambition, guilt, good and evil, desire, abandonment, social class, corruption, gratitude and redemption. And what a colorful cast of Dickensian characters and names: the fanciful Miss Haversham, beautiful yet frigid Estella, the toady Uncle Pumblechook, Joe the kind blacksmith, and escaped prisoner Abel Magwitch. Such a richly told tale, read during my high school and college years, impressed upon me the great diversity of lives, our shared growing-up pains, poignancy and loss, the unfairness placed upon those less fortunate and the imperative of the call to social justice.

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF ROBERT BURNS. The legendary Scottish bard got me in touch with my Scottish roots, so that throughout my 15 or so journeys to Scotland over an adult lifetime, I always feel as if I’ve somehow been there in a much earlier time or at least have returned home. Part of Burns’ genius was his keen ear for the spectrum of Scottish voices as he moved easily among the disparate worlds of the literary, the tavern and the countryside, filling his reservoir of poetry and song material to the brim. As I am forever immersed in the music of my ancestral land, Burns is the touchstone. His songs of love, homesickness, heartbreak, social justice, humor, and call to raising the torch of Scottish identity are alive and well in his ancient land, from the cities and towns to the lochs and glens. He is my enduring poet laureate of verse and song, part of my bloodline.

THE COURAGE TO TEACH; EXPLORING THE INNER LANDSCAPE OF A TEACHER’S LIFE, by Parker Palmer. For one drawn to a career in education as I am, my friend Parker eloquently resonates and with uncommon insight explores the inner journey of this significant but often misunderstood profession. Teachers are called to their work for reasons of the heart. Yet many can lose heart along the way through burnout, loss of spirit and personal sacrifice. Parker reminds us that good teaching cannot be reduced to lesson plans and technique; but that at its core it flows from the identity, integrity and values of the teacher. Over the years I frequently crossed paths with this remarkable writer and humanist as he served at my Warren Wilson College as faculty workshop leader, guest lecturer, commencement speaker and even music camp attendee. Along the way he profoundly affected my work and educational philosophy beginning with the moment I became a college president. And I always would share a copy of The Courage to Teach with each newly appointed faculty member.

NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, VOLUME ONE, by Mary Oliver. I discovered Mary Oliver’s transcendent poetry of introspection, joy and communion with nature in the middle age of my life journey. It has been by my side ever since. She obviously connects with many others as well, having been recognized with the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. As a fellow walker, usually amidst the natural world, I am struck by her poetic expressions filled with imagery from her daily walks. Little wonder she has been influenced by Thoreau and Whitman. I possess the complete body of Oliver’s extensive poetic musings, so really any of the collections are special, but this volume contains several favorites: "Wild Geese," "A Summer’s Day," "The Journey," "When Death Comes." I have quoted her from the commencement podium before an audience of thousands to the quiet solitude of the forested mountains. It is a voice for the heart and the ages.

Doug Orr, president emeritus of Warren Wilson College, is interim chancellor of UNC Asheville and co-author of NPRs Fiona Ritchie of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.