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Nancy Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Koehn's research focuses on how leaders, past and present,[…]

Shakespeare and Middlemarch.

Question: What are the great books?

Nancy Koehn: There are several people I go to again and again.  I go to Shakespeare.  I don’t read Shakespeare broadly.  I read maybe five or six of the plays over and over and over, and have memorized portions of them and recite those to myself, and to my horse, and to my poor friends very often.  So Shakespeare back and back and back again.  Right now Lincoln – for five years Lincoln.  And that’s not in just a thorough “I’m reading through this book, or these papers, or these speeches now.”  That’s so late at night when I’m frazzled, let’s just look up when Lincoln was up to in December of 1862 and see what wisdom Abe can shed on my life.  So Lincoln has been very important to me as a touchstone.

“Middlemarch” is my favorite novel by George Elliot.  And I’ve read it at least a dozen times.  I use it very often in lectures with executives and with MBA students for a variety of purposes.  So those are three kinds of bread and butter sources that I always return to.

I love the combination of the context and the protagonist’s agency.  Those are technical terms for something that really doesn’t feel technical inside of me at all.  But historians think of the world.  We think of the world, or the past, or the present as being made up of context – the sweeping historical, and social, and economic, and technological forces that define a moment; and then the possibility of, you know, one person or a group of people’s actions towards these thoughts.  And “Middlemarch” is just a fabulous mixture of those two.  It’s set against the context of great social and economic change in industrialized England.  Great social change; great geographic change as country becomes the city; a great technological change as the railroad snakes its way across God’s green and pleasant land.  And that context is fascinating.  And amidst these contexts are these very interesting, unforgettable characters like Dorothea, who starts out on her journey not unlike a … novel – because the book is really a … .  It’s really the story of an educational journey through walking the path of life – who starts out with very grand ambitions about herself, and marriage, and this great man she’s going to marry named …, and is sorely chastened and different ways over and over again.  And from that comes to see a set of new possibilities.  What’s the line from Joseph Campbell?  “Sometimes we have to let go of the life we have planned so we can live the life that is waiting for us.”  Dorothea comes to live the life that is waiting for her, as many of us do and will on our journeys.  And that story set against that landscape with a host of other fabulous characters and juicy subplots has held my attention for a long, long time.

Recorded On: 6/12/07

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