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President's Bookshelf

Read reviews of President Hall's favorite books and follow him on Goodreads at:

Latest Review:

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

I read next to no memoirs but am very happy to have read “Becoming,” by Michelle Obama. Though the book chronicles the former first lady’s life through her time in the White House with President Obama, I probably enjoyed most the parts of the book detailing her life before the White House: her life as a brilliant student from a working class family in Chicago, her time as an undergraduate and later a law student at Ivy League universities, her meeting Barack Obama as a young lawyer charged with mentoring Barack, then a summer law clerk at Michelle’s law firm, their eventual marriage, her juggling the responsibilities of a career, and as a wife and mother, as Barack became first a state legislator, then a U.S. senator, and finally the President of the United States. Especially toward the end, the book is not simply a personal but a political memoir. Republicans during her husband’s presidential administration earn few gracious remarks; the current president is an object of outright scorn, including a terse note that during Trump’s inauguration Michelle Obama eventually stopped even trying to smile. Overall, the book is an important window into the lives of President and First Lady Obama: beautifully written, wonderfully transparent, and imminently readable.

“Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown

I like Brené Brown a lot.  Her latest book, “Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts” gathers together themes from her previous works and packages them for a corporate audience.  This is a kind of sellout for some of her readers, but for me it is a helpful addition to the tons of books about corporate leadership and culture.  Understanding ourselves and our emotions is at the center of what it means to be human for Brené Brown and being vulnerable is a core characteristic of relating to others in any context, including corporate organizations.  This book focuses on vulnerability as a leader, the importance of clarifying one’s own personal values, building trust within the community you lead, and finally rising from and overcoming failure.  What I like most about the book is its confident conviction that leadership is not solely a matter of the head, but of the heart.

“The Fifth Risk” by Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis is another of the authors I regularly read.  “The Fifth Risk” is his hymn to the beneficial powers of government, especially the federal government.  It is a rebuke of Trump-style anti-government sentiment.  Lewis gives detailed examples of government programs and processes that address some of the larger problems of our national life, problems incapable of being sufficiently addressed by local action.  The weakness of his one-sided account is that it doesn’t turn the power of his journalism to the cases where large-scale government action can weaken the bonds of civil society or the cases where more localized solutions to public issues, such as state actions embraced by the principle of federalism, out to be preferred.  But for our particular political moment, this is an important book.

“Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh

I read “Delivering Happiness” in preparation for a visit I made to Zappos, the online shoe company, toward the end of 2018. I traveled with a number of other college presidents interested in discovering what we might learn from such a company about service to our students. We weren’t interested in studying this kind of service because we thought of our students as “customers.” The tendency to think of every one in every context as a “customer” is one of the unsavory consequences of the “consumer-ification” of society. It will be a sad state of affairs if it ever happens that the only vibrant notions of service we can come by are those requiring the exchange of money. Colleges have a special word to describe the objects of their service: we call them “students.” Unlike customers, they aren’t always right, but they deserve the best that we can offer them in terms of service. Inadequate service to our students can derail their higher education dreams. Tony Hsieh’s emphasis is on the kind of culture which produces extraordinary service, a culture I was able to witness first hand when I visited Zappos. For example, after new employees at Zappos finish their orientation period at the company, a period in which they learn the core values the company stands for, they are offered the chance to walk away from their jobs with a $2,000 check. Such is the company’s focus on building a community of people who share its values. Tony also described how customer service calls at Zappos are not viewed as irritations to be disposed of quickly, but opportunities to expand the company’s relationship with a particular caller through delivering extraordinary service to its callers. The first half of the book is interesting, in that it describes Tony Hsieh’s journey on the way to becoming the CEO of Zappos.  For readers in a hurry to discover what makes Zappos successful, though, I recommend jumping immediately to the second half of the book.

"Educated" by Tara Westover

One of my favorite books I read in 2018 was "Educated" which tells the story of a young woman from a dysfunctional family overwhelmed by mental illness, who first sets foot in a classroom at the age of 17. She eventually goes on to earn a doctorate from Cambridge University. Her journey of learning is full of moments from which I wanted to look away but which celebrated the power of education to transform a human life. I know of no more powerful demonstration that life is more than just living, but learning.