Stanford President John Hennessy finds joy and insights in great literature

In the first interdisciplinary presentation of Stanford's "How I Think About Literature" lecture series, President Hennessy underscored literature's ability to reveal truths about the human condition.

L.A. Cicero John Hennessy lecture

President John Hennessy, a computer scientist, was the first scholar from a non-literary background to speak in the "How I Think About Literature" series.

The fact that Stanford President John Hennessy spends a lot of time reading may not come as a surprise. What may be unexpected, however, is that he spends much of that time reading great works of literature.

"I love literature, I love reading," Hennessy said during a presentation of the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages (DLCL) series "How I Think About Literature." His excitement for the written word was clearly visible as he told the audience with emphatic gestures and remarkable recall about his favorite passages and characters from both epic and more contemporary works of literature.

As a computer scientist who reads extensively, Hennessy outlined the aspects of literature he values most: books that stretch our knowledge of other cultures and those that reason through ethical dilemmas and through insights into how people make decisions. He also seeks out literature about "war and the way it changes individuals rather than just the bigger picture," as well as books that expand the imagination and address themes of redemption, justice and love.

Now in its fourth year, the "How I Think About Literature" (HITAL) series aims to foster community within the DLCL, a division of five departments: Comparative Literature, German Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Iberian and Latin American Cultures, and French and Italian.

The series allows faculty from all of the DLCL departments the chance share their work with colleagues outside their fields of scholarship. In four or five talks per year, scholars present a lecture about how they approach different forms of literature.

Division chair and Slavic Professor Gabriella Safran says the series fulfills a need to "create opportunities for us to learn about each other." She adds that instead of only looking to the wealth of eminent outside speakers who visit Stanford, HITAL answers the question "What interesting thing is being done by the person down the hall from you?"

Although Hennessy was the first HITAL speaker not from a literary background, his comments resonated with the audience of DLCL faculty members and students.

Safran hopes that event will help increase the series' audience beyond the DLCL and provide the rest of the university with the chance to learn how professionals think about literature on the Stanford campus. Part of that outreach goal is reflected in this new move to include lecturers who are not literary scholars – a role Hennessy inaugurated with zest.

Falling in love with literature

So what are some of Hennessy's favorite books? He prefers sprawling works such as Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Homer's Iliad and Fyodor Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment, but he also reads extensively in contemporary literature – especially as a means to learn about other cultures.

Hennessy had special praise for The Orphan Master's Son, the recent Pulitzer-Prize winning work by Stanford's own Adam Johnson, an associate professor of English. Hennessy said he appreciates how the novel about North Korean life explores "what happens to identity when all freedom is removed," and what our notion of self would become in that environment. He said Johnson shows that "sometimes fiction is better at telling a story and giving an insight than nonfiction."

Many of the works Hennessy cited as his favorites were stories he had been introduced to in high school but more meaningfully rediscovered as an adult. To Hennessy, falling in love with literature as he did is often "about finding joy and interest and insights" in the pages of great literature.

And how, one may ask, does this computer scientist and president of a leading university make time to read all of these rather large books? "I don't watch TV. I read," Hennessy said. "It's become the way that I spend my free time."

Hennessy acknowledged how hard it can be for non-literary students to make time for reading outside their own disciplinary tracks. He said, however, that such expansion into the literary humanities provides valuable opportunities for the students' enrichment. "It's just remarkable for the insights and the questions that come to your mind," Hennessy said, adding that it's important to ask how students can engage more broadly with literature across the university.

Building a literary community

Four years after its inception, the success of the HITAL series' community-building project can be seen in its dedicated following. Each lecture attracts faculty and staff members as well as graduate and undergraduate students.

German and comparative literature Professor Russell Berman was the inaugural speaker in the series. His lecture, which is available to listen to online, addressed "the literariness of literature – how to approach a work of literature on its own terms, in contrast to thinking about it as history or philosophy or culture." He did his aesthetic analysis partly through a reading of a work of popular fiction, Stephen King's The Shining.

HITAL has been a very successful project, Berman said, adding that he has learned a lot about colleagues and their work. He said he hopes it will continue to contribute to building the literary community at Stanford.

Stacy Hartman, a doctoral candidate in German studies, has attended several lectures. She said that for students, "HITAL provides a chance to hear from faculty they might never take a class with or encounter in any other way, and to be exposed to new modes of thinking." Hartman said academic structures like the DLCL "are the wave of the future, and HITAL demonstrates the advantages they might bring."

Several of the HITAL lectures are available online, including a video of Slavic Professor Lazar Fleishman speaking about "The Unknown Legislators of the World."

Marília Librandi-Rocha, an assistant professor of Brazilian literature and culture in the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures, gave a HITAL lecture on "Thinking About Literature as a Native." Her talk was a thought-experiment regarding the "notion of fiction through the use of the Amerindian concepts of 'perspectivism' and 'multinaturalism.'"

She invited the audience to become "natives" of literature and its worlds, "as if it were possible to go over to the 'other side' each time we engage in the act of reading fiction."

Librandi-Rocha said she found inspiration in the answers and debates following her talk – a motivation for a subsequent article she published this year in Culture, Theory and Critique that is also informing one of her books in progress, The Margins of Literature.

Describing what she finds most valuable about the series, Librandi-Rocha said that HITAL "promotes, within and beyond the Division, a union of knowledge about different ways of thinking about the life of the imaginary. Its effect is contagious."

Angela Becerra Vidergar received her PhD in comparative literature from Stanford in 2013 and writes about the humanities at Stanford.