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My Daily Read: Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein is president of Bard College.

Q: What’s the first thing you read in the morning?
A: Over time I have developed a routine of how information comes to me. I never read the same thing in the morning in the same sequence. I read haphazardly and differently, starting more often than not with the obituaries wherever they exist. I make it my business to skim first, quickly, to ensure that there is incoherence in what I encounter. I am a strong believer in the building of counterintuitive connections and in letting one’s mind wander without a set purpose. The act of reading and skimming and rereading closely is therefore different every single day. Routine in terms of the time one spends reading is essential, but routine in the habits of reading can spell the death of the imagination.

Q: What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly? What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?
A: The magazines and newspapers I read regularly and to which I subscribe are The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, and scholarly journals in my field.

With the advent of the Internet, I periodically use search engines to follow stories and issues, and I do so probably once a day. But the most important source of information throughout my entire life continues to be delivered by word of mouth. Since I use email as a virtual system of formal communication, a new iteration of the interoffice memo and the post office, I still talk to people in person and on the telephone. My daily life is consumed by tips: people telling me what I should check up on and what I should read.

Everything I learn and know is the result of something I’ve heard someone talk about or learned about from someone. Face-to-face and ear-to-ear human communication with people I know and trust, as well as those who are often relative strangers, has always been the most memorable way of learning and finding out about things worthy of investigation. What I am able to know and think is really the result of collective story telling in real time. Listening to everyone and even suffering fools gladly are crucial.

As to books, while I use a Kindle for memoranda because the several organizations to which I belong have wisely turned to the virtual communication of bureaucratic prose, I remain tied, lovingly, to books.

Q: What books have you recently read?
A: Most of the books I’ve read recently—on the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius—are related to my work, which is actually my joy. In addition, I have read a novel by Sándor Márai, translated into English as Embers, several volumes of arcane musicological argument, and The Divine Comedy and the The Aeneid, in order to teach them. I also continue my long journey to read those books I should have read long ago but never got around to—novels by Arnold Zweig, newly issued short fiction by Vasily Grossman, and most importantly several volumes of fiction and nonfiction by the undeservedly obscure Austrian Jewish writer Soma Morgenstern.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you have recently read?
A: The beauty and brilliance of Soma Morgenstern’s prose and insights constitute the most surprising works I’ve read recently.

Q: Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best?
A: I encounter blogs only as a result of the referral system I’ve already described.

Q: Do you use Twitter? If so, whom do you follow?
A: I have never used Twitter and have no intention of doing so.

Q: What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet?
A: As to television, if I watch it at all, it’s only very late at night or very early in the morning. I rarely have the patience to watch a talk show or interviews for any sustained period. I am more likely to catch what’s important or memorable later on YouTube on the basis of referrals. —Evan R. Goldstein

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