Director of Admission Katharine Fretwell ’81 writes about what she reads when she’s not reading college application essays.


The winter bedside table is telling, as the stack of to-be-reads is precipitously high. Come summer, I can be a bit more aggressive in managing it. When a long weekend or vacation beckons, I know the reading may occur in more delightful places than an airplane or even my bedroom sanctuary: Beaches! Porches! Hammocks! Some books in The Pile I have already read; they stay because of my great fondness for them. Others remain there for, well, years, as I chip away at them.

An example of the latter is David W. Orr’s Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, on how the environmental crisis is the result of misplaced priorities in the education system. I find it more depressing than inspiring but know its messages are important, so I push on. In contrast, I recently devoured—and I mean devoured, to the point that I became angry if interrupted—Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One. Why on earth hasn’t everyone read this novel? It is the most gripping odyssey of hardship, wonder, history and survival I have ever read. Courtenay, a truly gifted storyteller (and marketing executive!), manages to intertwine horror and humor to the very end.

Then there is Laura Hillenbrand’s more recent Unbroken, another survivor’s tale. This is the true story of a plucky, aspiring world-class athlete named Louie Zamperini, his call to World War II and his remarkable courage in the face of truly unimaginable adversity. Muriel Barbery took me to Paris, a city I do not know, with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is a wonderful reminder that what we see is not always as it seems. Prodigies come in many shapes and sizes. Ages, too. In reading My Antonia, my first Willa Cather novel, I will admit that I was distracted by the elegance of Cather’s prose and my own daydreaming about having been born in the wrong era.

At present, I am midway through my first electronic read, Italian Shoes, by Henning Mankell. As I ponder my own aging process (not just because I am reading a “book” on an electronic device!) and spend more time reflecting on my past (a 30-year college reunion can prompt that), I am savoring Mankell’s protagonist’s angst about roads not taken. Next up: David Halberstam’s biography of Bill Belichick, The Education of a Coach. And, as always, I continue to look forward to reading Amherst magazine’s “What They are Reading.”

Are you curious about the reading habits of someone on campus? Write to to suggest a writer for this section. 

Photo by Charlie Quigg '09