Nocturnes. I picked it up a few days ago and already it follows me everywhere. It’s a collection of five stories — intense, intimate, beautiful stories that tell of love and loss and the passage of time. Ishiguro has an uncanny ability to interweave past and present in a way that evokes feelings of what could have been. It’s not exactly regret, it’s not quite nostalgia. It’s bittersweet.
I read Ishiguro’s magnum opus, The Remains of the Day, in business school. A beautifully crafted Booker Prize winner, it was on our reading list for a class I took in my second year. Often described as “a book club on steroids”, The Moral Leader was easily one of the best classes I took at Harvard. Unlike some others, the forty of us in class didn’t share an interest in brand marketing or in real estate. We weren’t trying to squeeze a job out of a classmate or lecturer’s connections or check a box on our resumes. We were a group of book nerds, there because the idea of learning through literature was hard to turn down.
The Moral Leader is an unconventional (and notoriously oversubscribed) class. It tosses out the HBS case method and instead draws entirely from novels, short stories, plays, biographies and autobiographies.
The readings span 2,000 years and eight continents and delve headfirst into topics like religion, race, culture, war. The idea is to go beyond specific business scenarios and explore broader, human situations that have moral or ethical dimensions — situations that inevitably take place and invariably catch us off guard.
It’s easy to convince yourself that logic is universal, principles indisputable and that moral compasses always point in a single, clear direction. Of course none of this is true. Facts are open to interpretation, logic to perspective and belief to emotion.
Hearing a classmate, a military veteran hailing from a long line of American military veterans, describe why a second atomic bomb was crucial in hastening Japan’s capitulation and ending the war was compelling. The cultural, strategic and economic rationale he laid out was sound. Yet, as soon as another classmate, a Japanese student who had experienced the aftermath, responded, most of us found ourselves holding back tears. We were conflicted, in judgement limbo, struggling to move to a new position.
The 3 months I was in the Moral Leader were the most productive of my fiction-reading career. Consuming a book a week certainly took longer than reading cases, but it was almost always more fun. Sometimes our assignments would be limited to a few select chapters rather than a 200-page behemoth. Most times, I’d read the whole book anyway.
One of the books that really sucked me in was Katharine Graham’s Personal History. Our assignment was a couple of chapters on Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and Woodward and Bernstein. Now, most books this long (630 pages to be precise) start slow and spend what seems like forever on buildup. This one had me hooked from the very first chapter. Kay Graham spares little detail when it comes to her upbringing, her insecurities and her personal demons but somehow she’s able to share it all with a great deal of self-awareness and perspective. Graham was an amazing, yet somewhat accidental, leader. She was thrust into greatness and was able to deliver, again and again. It was one of my favourite books of the course and I was disappointed to learn that plans for the movie have been shelved. Hers is a story worth knowing.
Some of the other readings that I especially enjoyed are below. Happy reading!
* Blessed Assurance (Allan Gurganus in White People)
* Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)
* This Child Will Be Great (Ellen Sirleaf Johnson)
* The Sweet Hereafter (Russell Banks)
* A Man for All Seasons (Robert Bolt)
* Antigone (Sophocles)