Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

Suzanne R. Coffey, director of athletics, writes about the books on the table between her favorite chair and the woodstove:

I am most often reading several books simultaneously. The more dog-eared and Post-it-note-marked, the better the read. On the table between my favorite chair and the woodstove, you’ll find Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic, Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures and The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

I’m partial to Richard Russo for his ties to Maine and his comedic view of academic life. His book Empire Falls is a fabulous profile of life in small-town Maine, and Straight Man was a laugh-out-loud funny look at the foibles of one English department chair. In That Old Cape Magic, main character Jack Griffin returns to Cape Cod—which had been a respite for his parents from their faculty jobs in the Midwest, as well as the place where they felt most alive—for his own daughter’s wedding. The events that unfold are a reminder of these precious moments when the middle generation bears the weight of connecting the decades ahead and behind. Russo’s descriptions of secret paths to hidden ponds, trails emptying out on vast secluded beaches and the people, wash-a-shores and year-’rounders alike, are rich with the sounds and smells of this favorite getaway.

When Ben Guest ’97 was on campus this fall recruiting students to the Mississippi Teacher Corps, we discovered our mutual interest in a concept called deliberate practice. Coaches spend hours and hours helping athletes improve performance through skill acquisition and repetition. How this translates to other disciplines has long fascinated me. In Expertise and Expert Performance, one of the editors, K. Anders Ericsson, describes structured repetition’s important, perhaps essential, role “in causing physiological adaptations and the acquisition of mechanisms that mediate expert performance.” Ericsson et al. have assembled research on this topic from medicine, to software design, to mathematics, to music and dance and presented it in 42 provocative essays. I sense I’ll be adding Post-its to this text for a long time to come.

I appreciated Malcolm Gladwell’s musings in Outliers, Blink and Tipping Point. His ability to point us toward the connections in otherwise everyday actions, and to the preponderance of these actions leading to consistent outcomes, opens his readers to recognizing patterns that were previously undetectable. In Outliers, Gladwell cites Ericsson’s early research into what distinguishes talented musicians from those with potential. Ericsson’s findings? Hard work and practice! Gladwell’s spin? Hard work and practice enabled by access, location and opportunity.

What the Dog Saw is a terrific, if joyfully disjointed, collection of his New Yorker magazine articles. Gladwell uses his far-flung creative ability to spin subjects including ketchup, dog-training and the marketing of the Veg-O-Matic into engaging essays that cause one to wonder about the (extra)ordinariness of our surroundings.