Hitting the books with incoming UVA President Jim Ryan

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Incoming UVA President Jim Ryan’s second book, Wait, What?, was based on his 2015 Harvard commencement address that went viral.

Courtesy UVA

You can tell a lot about a man from the books he reads. C-VILLE checked in with UVA’s President-elect Jim Ryan to get a peek at his bookshelf ahead of his sold-out Virginia Festival of the Book talk on Saturday, “Life’s Essential Questions: A Conversation with Jim Ryan.” Let’s just say that Thomas Jefferson figured prominently way before Ryan was named to head his university.

C-VILLE: What non-work-related book are you reading now?

Jim Ryan: I’m currently reading Jon Meacham’s biography of Jefferson, which is somewhat work-related but nonetheless fascinating. I wrote a report in second grade about “Tall Tom Jefferson” and was obsessed with him at that age, to the point that I persuaded my parents to take me to the Jefferson Memorial in D.C. Turns out a lot has been written about him since. Meacham’s biography is a good place to start.

What book changed your life?

Three books, actually. First, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which captured a perspective in a beautiful and haunting way that I had only dimly perceived, namely that our lives are a product of chance encounters and ad hoc decisions that ultimately have profound consequences. Second, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is the only book (other than Goodnight Moon) that I have read twice. I have always been fascinated by the intersection of art and science, and this book sparked my thinking about that intersection more than any other. The third is Born to Run, which is a book about long-distance running that both changed my perception about what constitutes a “long” run and made me a huge devotee of chia seeds.

What writer (living or not) would you most like to meet?

Robert Frost. There is a wealth of wisdom in every poem he wrote, and I am enamored of his voice. I would be thrilled to spend time with him, though I realize it’s not possible at this point, given my current location (and his).

What did you learn from writing a book?

Honesty works. I’ve written two books, the first an academic one and the second one [Wait, What?] decidedly not academic. But in both instances, I tried as hard as I could to be honest. Many more people read my second book than my first, but I like to believe that in both instances, those who read my books appreciated that I was doing my best to be honest.

Will your book be required reading at UVA?

Ha! Though my publisher would love this idea, I would never be that presumptuous. When I finished writing my books, I  was so tired of them that I couldn’t imagine that anyone would actually want to read them, much less be required to do so.—Lisa Provence

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