The Best Lesson I Learned in College


During four years of college, this is the best advice I ever got:

Bring a book.

I received this sage advice my first week on campus, before my classes even began, thanks to Colby president William Cotter, who shared it in a welcome lecture to entering students.

I admit that I remember little else from the lecture, held 20 years ago in the college’s chapel. But, I do recall the gist of Cotter’s advice: Bring a book wherever you go.

Bring a book.

It’s straightforward, but powerful advice.

Be a reader, it says. Be a lifelong learner. Be a thinker.

Be open to new ideas, people, cultures, history, viewpoints, and beliefs.

For me, Cotter’s book advice ranks up there as one of his best legacies. I don’t say this lightly about an accomplished, thoughtful man who led a top liberal arts college for two decades and later a foundation dedicated to global social and environmental issues.

Bring a book.

I’ve followed this mantra for years, bringing a book wherever I go, the same way some people make sure they have their phone or makeup in hand.

And it’s not just on long-distance trips or vacations, but every day—on trips to the doctor’s office, my kids’ piano lessons, even the ski mountain. I never know when a wind hold might force me off the slopes, or when five minutes in the waiting room will become 30.

A book in hand (or bag or backpack) turns what could be a frustrating waste of time into reading time.

Only a really good read could make me want to sit “just a minute longer” while in a busy waiting room or wearing a drafty johnny, hoping simply to finish a page, a chapter, to find out what happens next.

No book and I’m stuck reading health pamphlets on diseases, listings for real estate I can’t afford, and 1982 issues of Highlights for Children.

Headed out the door? Bring a book.

A few years after graduating from Colby, I found myself in an airport with President Cotter and his wife, Linda. Naturally, they both had books to read while we waited for our flight. I don’t recall what he was reading, but she showed me her book club selection: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

To see this poised and accomplished woman, on her way home from an art museum board meeting, openly enjoying and recommending a kids book made me like her even more. I got my own copy soon after and was hooked on Potter.

Bring a book.

The best advice is often deceptively simple. Thankfully, this one is also relatively easy to follow. And, with e-books on phones and tablets it’s even more convenient. Most of us are probably carrying a shelf’s worth of reading material on our phones right now.

With kids, a husband, and a business, it would be easy to think I don’t have enough time to read. But, since I bring a book wherever I go, I’m surprised at how those reading breaks add up: more stories told, more information discovered, more ideas shared, more books read over a lifetime.

Bring a book.

I try to keep manners and basic civility in mind. My nose is unstuck for meals with friends and family, weddings, funerals, my kids’ performances and games. I try to be present and mindful of where I am. But, with a little common sense, a book is a great accessory and can even make a statement.

A few years ago I was at my daughter’s swim lessons. Most of the parents were spending their time glancing between the pool and the glow of their devices. I had a book in hand.

“A book!” said a woman passing by.

“Thanks?” I said with a smile.

“And it’s a library book!” she said, astonished.

I don’t think she was being ironic. Maybe she thought I was.

The next time I leave the house I’ll put a book in my bag. It might be a used book sale find, a popular bestseller, a classic worth rereading, or maybe an informative nonfiction work. Then I’ll read it in public, reclaiming the stolen minutes of my day.

Bring a book.