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Writes of Passage 

Checking out the prose that has influenced the pros

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads." The same should also be said for those rare authors, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and civic leaders who play at the top of their games. If reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body, then maybe the rest of us could benefit from borrowing a page or two from the personal-training manuals of the experts.

To scope out the reading habits of highly effective people, Seven Days asked a variety of successful Vermonters which books stand out as the most influential of their lives. We didn't limit their choices to titles related to their particular areas of expertise. Our only request was that they limit their selections to three - not possible for some of the more voracious readers - and invited them to provide a few words of their own about why those works made a difference.

In this highly unscientific survey, a few writers came up more than once: Russian luminary Leo Tolstoy, sea-adventure writer Patrick O'Brian, and, well, the author of the Bible. A common theme? Many people mentioned books they first encountered when they were young - a ringing endorsement for getting kids to read early and often.


is deputy police chief of the Burlington Police Department, a 23-year veteran of the force and an avid reader and history buff. He lives in Grand Isle.

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, the true story of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire on the Helena National Forest in Montana. "Anything Maclean writes is very well done. What intrigued me about it were the sociological aspects - young people being assigned to a job that they weren't trained in or didn't have enough equipment for. And, it was a field that was in its infancy, and there was a tragic set of circumstances."

Martin's Hundred by Ivor Noel Hume. Hume, a BBC correspondent during World War II, was the chief archaeologist for Williamsburg, Virginia. Hume and his wife spent 50 years excavating the site, reinterpreting the archaeological evidence and debunking historians' assumptions of how certain things were done in the past. "This book sparked my interest in archaeology. It wasn't just about finding stuff in the soil. It was applying the social context for the real-life events that would have occurred at the time."

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. "The style of his writing, his direct, first-person narration of abject poverty, and having to overcome the obstacles from his childhood. It just struck a chord, of his mother trying to carry the family and trying to survive the types of hardship they had."


is one of Vermont's most inventive jazz composers and musicians. He lives in Bristol.

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number by Mario Livio. "A delightful illumination of the patterns that govern so much of what we call beauty, be it in painting, music or architecture. And it's fun. Never underestimate fun."

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. "A remarkable book - compelling, provocative, original, beautiful - that stands firmly on its own merits. As compelling is the author's own story, that she turned her abundant talents to speaking truth to power is nothing short of heroic. Both the author and the book are a testament to hope."


is Vermont's Republican lieutenant governor, a pilot for American Airlines and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He lives in Essex Junction.

The Bible. "The more I study the people in the Bible, the more I realize that it's all been done before."

"From great service to great excess, Seek the Fair Land, The Silent People, The Scorching Wind, a historical trilogy of the Irish from 1649-1915, written by Walter Macken. Very insightful into the events of today and how people and cultures interact."

Rabble in Arms by Kenneth Roberts. "All Vermonters should be required to read this book. Roberts, like Ralph Nading Hill, writes about the early history of Vermont."

The complete works of Patrick O'Brian, 17 historical novels based on a British captain's logs during the Napoleonic Wars. "These books are an amazing study on crew leadership and interactions for a team sent to sea for years at a time under very difficult conditions. These books also offer a great look at what you do not see behind the events of the day - the world of intelligence and its impact on state craft."


is the winner of the 2006 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world's highest honor for writers of books for young people, and the second largest literary award in the world. Her books include the National Book Award winner Master Puppeteer (1977) and Newbery Medal winners Bridge to Terabithia (1978) and Jacob Have I Loved (1981). She lives in Barre.

"I was raised on the King James Version of The Bible, which I think is a wonderful background for anyone writing in the English language. Memorizing long passages of Scripture was part of my early education, so although I tend to read more modern versions, I still think in the King James.

"When I was 11, my mother gave me a copy of The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Echoes from that book reverberate through much of my own work.

"The book that has moved me most in recent years is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It's too soon to say how it will affect my writing, but it's already had an effect on my life, making me more conscious of how short life is and how precious."


is the founder, president and "corporate responsibility officer" of Burlington-based Seventh Generation, the nation's leading manufacturer of natural and eco-friendly home and personal-care products. He lives in Charlotte.

Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society by Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers. "If we can slow down our thinking enough to actually watch how we think, become conscious of the generation of our thoughts, question whether there is another way to see what we are seeing, do what we are doing, hold what we are holding, a whole new world opens up before us."

Capitalism: As If the World Matters by Jonathon Porritt. "The case for sustainable development must be reframed. It must be as much about new opportunities for responsible wealth creation as about outlawing irresponsible wealth creation; it must draw upon a core of ideas and values that speaks directly to people's desire for a higher quality of life, emphasizing enlightened self-interest and personal well-being of a different kind."

Synchronicity: Inner Path of Leadership by Joseph Jaworski. "The physical survival of the human race depends on a radical change of the human heart. This is an exceptional guide to leadership that explores the need to serve one another and to serve something beyond ourselves, a higher purpose."


is co-founder, CEO and creative director of the Burlington-based Jager Di Paola Kemp Design, an international marketing, branding and design firm. He lives in Burlington.

Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. "Ideas are form. Joseph Beuys' art is incredibly beautiful and impactful in all its forms, but the concept of ideas as form and his belief in debate as 'social sculpture' had a great impact on how I saw creative interaction."

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. "Absolutely brilliant through simplicity. It magnified the importance of restraint in how we share ideas about life and how precious our short time on this earth really is."

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. "The potency of a story well told - through the eyes of the innocent. No story for me has ever captured the sadness of our human collision with the persistent evil of ignorance and inequality."


is music director and conductor of the Vermont Youth Orchestra, conductor of the Middlebury College Orchestra and a frequent guest conductor of the Vermont Mozart Festival, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and the Vermont Philharmonic. He lives in Colchester.

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. "A novel about San Francisco in the 1980s that just happens to be written entirely in sonnets. Despite a handful of clunky moments, it mostly soars. And since much of my work as a conductor is about understanding the way that classical forms can contain and evoke powerful emotions, this book had a big impact on my life."

The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem by Ned Rorem. "For me, a straight kid from the 1980s Pacific Northwest, this incredibly evocative tale of a young gay American in 1950s Paris opened my eyes to the transformational power of trying to understand other people's experiences. Plus, it is a feast of bon mots."

Johannes Brahms: A Biography by Jan Swafford. "The warmest and most engaging biography I know of the greatest composer there ever was. Put some Brahms on the iPod and read this one over and over again."


is the mayor of Burlington.

The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature by Loren Eiseley. "He wrote a whole series of books about the natural world and our place in the changing world."

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. "It really is an antiwar book. I read it in 1969, which was an appropriate time to read it."

The Complete Aubrey/Maturin Novels by Patrick O'Brian. "That was the first time I read a series of books like that . . . I actually paced myself with that series. I never read two in a row. It's a pretty rich story and a whole lot of it is based on historical fact."


is an associate justice on the Vermont Supreme Court. She lives in Montpelier.

"For pure story-telling genius, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, The Sea The Sea by Iris Murdoch, The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durell. Books that taught me a lot include Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks. Gosh, I could go on and on . . ."


is an accomplished blues guitarist who's played and recorded with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, David Bromberg and, of course, The Unknown Blues Band. He lives in Burlington.

"The first that comes to mind was a biography of the late jazz saxophone player John Coltrane. I can't seem to find it now, so I don't remember its name. But it helped me to formulate something that I already felt, but hadn't yet found the words to say - namely, that playing music is a life calling, and that certain people hear the call and have no choice but to follow it.

"The second book is by a longshoreman and day laborer-turned-author named Eric Hoffer. It's called The True Believer, and it basically raises a red flag about the psychological pitfalls of being captivated by any single movement, faith, slogan or passion. Ironically, its message is arguably the 'mirror image' of the Coltrane book!

"The third book that really affected me growing up was a wonderful novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called The Lost World. It's an early science-fiction fantasy about an expedition to the Amazon to investigate reports of a landlocked region where dinosaurs and other vestiges of prehistoric life never died out . . . At the beginning, Doyle says that his goal was to bring joy to 'the boy that's half a man, and the man that's half a boy.' At the time I read it, I was definitely the former, and I felt then that Doyle achieved his goal. I suppose I'm now the latter. But I reread the book a few years back, and Arthur's still batting a thousand!"


is the Democratic congressman-elect from Vermont and outgoing president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate. He lives in Hartland.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. "It's my favorite book. It's an epic story about Russians but also the personal and emotional complexities of the mighty and the common, written in prose only Tolstoy could manage."

Without by New Hampshire poet Donald Hall. The book is a collection of poems Hall wrote following the death of his wife, Jane Kenyon, who died only a few years before Welch's wife, Joan Smith. "It's really about loss," Welch says. "One of the poems was about being with his wife at Mary Hitchcock Hospital, where Joan was. I enjoy poetry, but that was particularly moving for me."

Lincoln by Gore Vidal. "I like a lot of Lincoln books and I enjoy a lot of Churchill books, but I read this one years ago. It's a historical-based fictional account of the Lincoln years and reveals how Lincoln had this extraordinary confidence to bring into his cabinet the people who were trying to sabotage his effort to become president. He managed to create an effective cabinet out of the people who had been his most strident enemies, all to the benefit of the country."


is an award-winning poet, playwright, essayist, novelist and musician. He lives in Wolcott.

Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders

Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus

What Is Art? by Leo Tolstoy

The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank by Erma Bombeck

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer


is a veteran writer with Sports Illustrated, author of Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure and founder and owner of the Vermont Frost Heaves ABA pro-basketball team. He lives in Cornwall.

Simple Justice by Richard Kluger. "I was a college stopout playing club basketball in Switzerland when I stumbled upon a paperback edition of this book - a tapestry of the people caught up in the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown decision - in a shop on Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse. Perhaps it stood out in relief that winter of 1977-78 against the mealy backdrop of my days, which were English-deprived, hoops-filled and, well, Swiss. But Simple Justice showed me how facts can be marshaled to great effect, and that writers needn't be novelists to tell profound moral tales. It led me back to campus, to major in history, and to what I've done for a living ever since."

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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