My interview in January 2007 with UH Systems President David McClain was surprising, and long–much longer than I could print in the small square afforded me in the Advertiser for my “What I’m Reading Column.” So even though his interview is still up on the Advertiser site, I though this week I’d include the full interview to provide a better picture of his voracious reading appetite. This is also something inspired by a recent conversation with KITV reporter Denby Fawcett.

What I’m Reading | David McClain
President, University of Hawaii Systems

Q&A with Christine Thomas
January 2007

–What are you reading?

I just went to Vietnam and on the plane I read a book called “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich. I’m scheduled to do a talk as part of the Windward Community College Common Book Series in January and the two books chosen for that are Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century” and this one. It’s kind of a globalization compare and contrast. Friedman’s is about globalization and how we better get ready; Ehrenreich’s one is an attempt to see how hard or easy it is to make ends meet in jobs that pay $7 an hour. Ehrenreich is 50-ish and well educated, so she foreswore her laptop and gave herself a limited amount of money, and saw if she could survive. She saw that no—she had to have two jobs.

An impulse purchase I picked up on the newsstand recently is called “Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage.” It’s about the Navy’s efforts in the early to mid-cold war to learn more about what the Soviets were doing via submarines. What was interesting were that chapters were based heavily on conversations with John Craven, who was on our faculty, about attempts to raise from the ocean around Midway a Soviet sub that sank. It’s been made possible by the freedom of information act. It’s an odd one for me because I don’t typically read military stuff.

When I got back from vacation this summer I walked into my staff meeting and I said everyone needs to read this book: “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian,” by Marina Lewycka. It’s really funny. The plot is basically that there’s an 80-something gentleman whose wife as just died—they emigrated from Ukraine to the UK around the time of the war. It’s told from the point of view of his daughter. She is 47 and aghast that he’s going to marry a 30-year-old. There’s a lot of comedy that goes into this set up and the father trying to remain in control, and the kids appalled at their father’s behavior. If you’ve ever had an elderly parent coping with losing their capabilities, as I have, it resonates with you on that level. It’s funny the whole time. What you get is on a personal level, the aging parents, which is a fairly universal experience, and then you get the sibling rivalry, and then you understand the rivalry is based on their different growing up experiences because of their age difference, and that gets you into the history of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. And here come the tractors.

I also like the author Mark Haddon, who is British, and his book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” It’s told from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy. Now you think, if you are the writer, how do you get inside the head of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy? So it’s magical from that point of view, but also funny.

I’m also a big fan of John Grisham. I know it’s pedestrian, but whenever a new one comes out I buy it. The new one, “The Innocent Man,” is about the recent miscarriage of justice in Oklahoma. I also liked “A Painted House,” told from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy in Arkansas—again, as a writer, how do you do that?

And I’m a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith who wrote “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” which is set in Botswana. He’s a Scottish writer, and obviously he’s lived in Botswana. His series is of course a mystery series, but his other series has ethics couched in the story. He is a bioethicist. He was at Manoa last year as a distinguished lecturer and I missed him. But my wife Wendy went to lunch with him and she introduced me to his work. For me it’s like a ‘50s version of “The Hardy Boys.” It’s really fun, and there are a lot of observations about life. They’re totally charming.

–You seem to have a lot of time to read for fun.

I do. It’s a source of entertainment and relief and refreshment.

–Many of these authors are British. Is it something about the UK that attracts you or the varied places and unusual perspectives?

I think it is that I really do enjoy the craft of writing. For nearly 20 years I wrote 900 words every week for a financial publication in Boston. It was nothing like fiction—it was economic analysis. But when I come across something that is a hard problem that writers carry off well, I have a lot of admiration for them. It’s fun to watch the writer at his or her craft make this happen. All of those books offer a unique perspective and are hard to make work well.

–As President, do you relate to these writers’ challenges of bringing different problems and perspectives together in a way that’s best for all?

I’m not sure I would have made that connection, but there’s certainly a level of complexity in the job of any university president because of what universities are. I enjoy the challenge of performing our vision and raising the resources to support that. It’s neat to work with people and realize our potential and provide a valuable resource to the state. So there might be something to that…What you do see in leadership positions is that there are higher highs and lower lows, and you see a broad range of human experience and leadership experience. It’s something like a novel or short story writer who tries to capture human experience. There’s a lot of material here. What I’m reading really just has to do with human experience.

–So the more you can see other people from their perspective, the more you can bring them together?

It does help. And I think that the other things that I’m struck by is I really admire the craft in the same way I watch some of our athletic teams at UH, or talk to our internationally renowned astronomer. To listen and watch them do something that is really excellent is really thrilling. It’s not so much utilitarian as it is just—wow.