Published: April 2008
William Neenan, SJ, vice president and special assistant to the president, says that he became an avid general reader when he was studying economics in graduate school. “I started reading before going to bed because I didn’t want my whole life to be constrained by reading economics and math. As the twig was bent, so it grew.”
He recalls the occasion in the early 1980s when, as the new dean of Arts & Sciences at Boston College, he encouraged incoming freshmen to read a few library books that were not required by their course work. “I told them that we had gone to a great effort to build up a large library collection at the University, and since they were going to have four years here, it might be good if they read a book or two.” In response to suggestions from faculty, he compiled a list of “recommendations for an evening of good reading.”
And so, an institution began. Since then, Neenan has annually prepared what has come to be called the “Dean’s List,” of 27 books. (“That’s three cubed and a mystical number; I’m making this up, but ‘three cubed’: it sounds mystical.”) In August 2000 the list was featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education story and that same month it was the subject of a Boston Globe feature, which quoted Office of Public Affairs director Jack Dunn’s statement that there are 10,000 requests annually for the latest list.
In a recent conversation, Neenan, who is in his eighties, observed that his taste in literature has changed over the years. These days he has a greater proclivity to “doze off” in the evening. “I read less of a serious nature—more novels and narrative history.” He is glad for the annual exercise of reflecting over his prior year’s reading. “It’s the same reason final exams are useful. They give the student the opportunity to reflect on what happened since September,” he explained. “St. Ignatius wanted people to reflect at the end of each day on how that day had gone. Reflecting on last year’s reading mirrors that. It’s a spiritual thing. Please notice: I’m ending on a spiritual note.”
To mark the 25th anniversary of the Dean’s List, in February the O’Neill Library unveiled a “special exhibition of the 130 or so books that have made the List over the years.” On February 27 Fr. Neenan spoke at a reception celebrating the opening of the exhibit. @BC presents a video of his talk on that occasion.