Question: What are your favorite books?
Peter Gomes: Well you are touching on a subject very near and dear to me. When I first came to Harvard, there was a great professor here still prowling the grounds named Walter Jackson …, which may ring true to you. His specialty was the age of Samuel Johnson. And he wrote a great biography of Dr. Johnson which was quite a hit in the early 70s. And in it, he discovered Johnson – that 18th century dictionary man – had a list of three favorite books. And it happened to me that I had read all three of those books and they were my favorite books. So I thought I was in very good company with Dr. Johnson and Professor Walter Jackson … . The three books were Cervantes’s “Don Quixote”, Defoe’s “Robin Crusoe”, and John Bunyon’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”. I had read all three of them. And I loved how Johnson described his capacity to return to these books for new material all the time. I loved the idealism of Don Quixote … the man who could make the most ordinary things appear to be beautiful, for whom windmills represented opportunities for challenge and change – fighting them – and who traveled across with his idealism more or less intact … living in his own world in the middle of a reality that was not supportive of his ideals. I liked that. And then I lovevast quantities of those orange-backed books. I loved biography. And I had a fertile imagination. I could live in the world of other people. And to those substantial books, I added such wonderful treasures as “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wind in the Willows”, where I always imagined myself to be Mr. Toad putting around in a yellow motorcar. There was a whole world that, in my little town of Plymouth, was not off limits to me because it was the world of books and ideas. And all of those have fed into my imagination, and I think that enriches and stimulates my preaching and my … my teaching. Robinson Crusoe, because I love the notion of shipwreck and improvisation – having you create your own world out of the ruins of another world. That was a wonderfully appealing sort of sense of adventure. And it even had a diversity in it, “my man Friday”. I mean, we’ve all been aided by somebody we least expected. And there’s something very excited about taking that stuff off the old ship and creating a new civilization, and not having to go back to the old world out of which he had come. And then of course, coming from Plymouth, I loved John Bunyon and the “Pilgrim’s Progress” – the man with the book on his back – the great Baptist with the sense of a purposeful journey long before Rick Warren ever came along. I rather enjoyed this notion that we’re not just lost and wandering tourists. We are people with a destination. And we go through the … and we pass through vanity fair, and we deal with all of these terrible struggles, because we are meant for the celestial city. So it was wonderful to see that Dr. Johnson took great comfort from these three books because I always did and continue to do so. So that’s an example of the sort of thing the western Canon, much despised and neglected in these parts, has done for me. It’s given me a vocabulary, a set of images, a world into which I could go. I was an avid reader as a young boy. I read everything I could get my hands on. I had all the little prizes in school for reading the most books in the summer. My name is still on the tablet in the children’s room of the public library because I could consume
Recorded on: 6/12/07