Jim O’Rourke On the Importance of Reading

James O’Rourke IV

James O’Rourke IV

Ask James O’Rourke IV about books and you’ll hear everything from a touching story about a woman who personally shopped for books for him in Cambridge, England; a rundown of his daily reading routine; a few rants about Jeff Bezos and Amazon; and a confession about his inability to get rid of his piles of books.

The sole author, coauthor or directing editor of 19 books and more than 250 case studies, O’Rourke is a teaching professor of management and the Arthur F. and Mary J. O’Neil Director of the Fanning Center for Business Communication at the University of Notre Dame.  He teaches communication courses to most undergraduate and graduate students at Mendoza, where he has taught for 24 years.

In this Q&A, O’Rourke gives a glimpse of how bone-deep reading and communication are to his life.

What do you read regularly?

My guiding premise is that if you want to become a better writer you should read better writing.  So I seek out sources that I know have good writers.  Each morning I read The New York Times before I go to class.

Usually over lunch I read The Wall Street Journal.  In the evening I read the local paper, The South Bend Tribune, so I know what’s going on locally.  I then wait until after dinner to get to the Financial Times.  And I don’t read everything.  I read all of the headlines.  For half the stories, I’ll read the first paragraph, and for three or four select stories, I read all of it.  And I have some favorite columnists, Gillian Tett, James Mackintosh.  I think the writing in the FT is really quite good.

I read a number of magazines, some weekly, some monthly.  I look quickly through Bloomberg Businessweek.  I still look at Fortune.  I look at The Economist, and at The New Yorker. I choose at least one New Yorker story a week to read the whole of the story.  My favorite New Yorker writer is Jeffrey Toobin. He’s awfully good.

I look at a number of blogs, including Bloomberg.  I check in on the HBR (Harvard Business Review) blogs.  The daily HBR blogs have several sections, the Daily Idea, the Daily Stat and then a few features that are focused on research that has practical applications for managers.  Then, I’ll look at Gizmodo, which is about tech devices, and Jalopnik, which is about cars.

What have you read recently?

I try to read one hardcover book a month.  I don’t always succeed.  In the summer or over Christmas break I can sometimes do three or four a month. That gives me 15 to 18 titles a year, so I try to choose carefully.

Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath is really interesting.  It’s filled, of course, with Gladwell anecdotes but they’re all cleverly written; they’re interesting and highly entertaining.

Two other books that are a little different — not perhaps quite as entertaining but certainly worthwhile — are Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow; that looks at cognitive processing, looks at how we perceive, process, learn, recall and forget.  There’s a lot of new information in Kahneman’s work and it’s very accessible.

Michael Thomasello has written a book just released by Harvard University Press, A Natural History of Human Thinking. It really is, frankly, evolution’s way of saying, “Here’s our principal advantage.  First we had opposable thumbs, now we have a frontal cortex.  There are a lot of animals that can outrun us, but not many that can outthink us.”  It also has important implications for education.  What do we keep? What do we toss out?  What do we refine?  And how do we pass that to the next generation of young philistines who know absolutely nothing?

How do you choose books?

Page 1 of 3 | Next page