Summer Reading, Part III: True and Cautionary Tales

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July 26, 2011 — Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, and Robert F. Bruner, dean of the Darden School of Business, suggest several books that explore less well-known and more personal sides of well-known figures, literary and military.

Sullivan has been the president of the University of Virginia for nearly a year now. When she has time, she's been learning more about the University's founder, Thomas Jefferson. She recently read "The Women Jefferson Loved" by Virginia Scharff.

"What was interesting about this book was looking at the influence of women, such as Jefferson's mother, about whom I'd actually heard relatively little," Sullivan said. "I'd heard a lot more about Martha Jefferson and about the close relationship he had with his daughter and his granddaughters, and of course, with Sally Hemings, which is another interesting part of this book.

"I thought it brought out a side of Jefferson that you don't always hear about when you read other biographies," she said.

Sullivan said many people have asked her, "Don't you think Mr. Jefferson would be really surprised to see you as president of the University?"

"The first surprise would be that the University had a president, because Mr. Jefferson didn't anticipate that. He thought that the rector would serve that function, and that the faculty would then elect a chairman every year. ... but of course, he probably would be equally surprised that I'm a woman."

Sullivan found a disturbing surprise when she read "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," co-written by College of Arts & Sciences' sociologist Josipa Roksa – whom Sullivan called "a colleague."

"It's surprising how relatively little work students were putting in," she said, hastening to point out that selective schools like U.Va. were not part of the research.

"I think it's an important book to read, because it talks about the progress – or lack of progress – in cognitive ability by college students at a sample of colleges," said Sullivan, who is also U.Va. George M. Kaufman Presidential Professor of Sociology. "It's important to understand the data and the arguments in a book such as this."

Robert Bruner: Leadership and Perseverence

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Bruner also found surprises about leadership in biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain – their perseverance and decision making in the face of some of life's most difficult challenges and how they influenced the culture and society of their times.

He recommends "Trial by War" by James McPherson, which focuses on Lincoln as a commander-in-chief' who had no previous military experience.

"Lincoln was frustrated repeatedly by the appointment of generals who proved to be lackluster, unimaginative, and in a few cases, corrupt," Bruner said. "Lincoln went through a series of generals – trying one, trying another – and eventually settled on the famous Ulysses S. Grant, with other generals Sherman and Sheridan of repute, all of whom regularly won battles often at great cost and loss of life, but ultimately brought the Civil War to an end.

"This book is of great relevance to leaders in virtually all professions."

He also recommends Michael Sheldon's "Mark Twain: Man in White," which, he said, looks at the senior years of the iconic writer who changed the American literary scene.

"It describes his experience in searching for support and relevance ... with a wider audience and a circle of friends in his remaining decade of life," Bruner said. Twain's later work, he said, "is laden with caustic commentary on aspects of American society and morés and observations about customs."

After his wife, Olivia, died, "he began to live large," Bruner said. "For all of his public appearances, he began to show up in a white suit, which at the time was an extreme variance from the fashion for men in those days."

He considers the book "a cautionary tale for aging baby-boomers about how to live their final years with nobility and grace and wonderful impact."

Bruner said Darden faculty members often recommend Sloan Wilson's 1955 book, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," made into the film with Gregory Peck one year later. It's another cautionary tale and still relevant as it explores societal pressures to be successful in business, especially difficult for returning war veterans.

A book about another kind of leader caught Bruner's attention: "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption," in which Laura Hillenbrand captures the life of Louis Zamperini, an American Olympic long-distance running star who became a bombardier. After his plane crashed in the Pacific, Zamperini endured 47 days adrift in a lifeboat and then 2 ½ years in a Japanese prison camp.

"It was a brutal experience. He recovered with great difficulty and ultimately with a spiritual awakening," Bruner said.

The Reading List

"Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption" by Laura Hillenbrand
"Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief" by James M. McPherson
"The Women Jefferson Loved" by Virginia Scharff
"Mark Twain: Man in White" by Michael Sheldon
"The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" by Sloan Wilson

Check out the U.Va. Bookstore's trade books section for these and other titles. To order online or make inquiries, email bookshop@virginia.edu.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications