Power of the Pivot: Bogle Fellows Book Exchange

Tuesday, May 5, 2020
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

“The courage to press on regardless -- regardless of whether we face calm seas or rough seas, and especially when the market storms howl around us -- is the quintessential attribute of the successful investor.” -- John (Jack) C. Bogle ’51

This quote from John C. Bogle ’51, namesake of the John C. Bogle ’51 Fellows in Civic Service program, seems especially applicable today as the Princeton University community continues to adapt to the new circumstances surrounding COVID-19. As the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement has sought to continue to make service and civic engagement part of the student experience, it too has had to find new ways to weather the storm. 

For example, the John C. Bogle ’51 Fellows in Civic Service program, which offers first-year students the opportunity to develop their own summer service internship and delve into the intersections of their values and intellectual pursuits in a with a group of like-minded peers, would normally be welcoming its 2020 Fellows. According to Pace Center Program Coordinator Kira O’Brien, Bogle Fellows would usually go through a variety of spring programming, including workshops, meals together, and other group events with program alumni, before their summer internship. But with COVID-19 shifting many Princeton students off campus, the program has had to make some adjustments. 

“At first I was really saddened,” said O’Brien. “We had already developed some great momentum and had plans in place that were going to really bring together the fellows in a powerful way. Yet the need to pivot so quickly, enabled me to stop and really think about the real intention of the fellowship -- the intersections between personal values and intellectual curiosities; deep reflection and dialogue -- and I realized that these are not only translatable to a virtual context, but also transcend the confines of in-person programming.”

As a result, O’Brien has turned to a low-tech resource -- books -- to create bridges between the fellows. Using book recommendations collected from each of fellows during the acceptance process, O’Brien has paired fellows up, providing each fellow with two books: one chosen by another Bogle Fellow which speaks to issues that resonates with them, and another recommended by O’Brien which connects the conversation between each pair. 

Program Coordinator Kira O'Brien with books for the Bogle Fellows

Program Coordinator Kira O'Brien sits on the front steps of her grandmother's home in Brooklyn, NY with books for the 2020 Bogle Fellows. Photo courtesy of Kira O'Brien

This book exchange was developed by O’Brien in order to facilitate group cohesion in this time of social distancing, noting how for her, exchanging books is “a way to engage someone in a conversation, share a perspective, and invite someone to grapple with something alongside you.”

Right now the book club has special resonance for O’Brien and the fellows, as this is the first year that the Bogle Fellowship will be operating since the passing of Jack Bogle, who was a prolific writer himself. 

“The book club arose out of a desire to embody the core values of the fellowship in a remote context,” she said. “Books transcend time and space, and can act as a powerful bridge between us. Mr. Bogle knew the importance of this; he documented his experiences and insights in order to make them accessible and drive forward his mission of promoting the opportunity to invest and increase wealth to everyone regardless of socioeconomic standing.” 

Moreover, all of the books have come from Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where O’Brien has been buying her books since she was five. The co-owner of the store, Ezra Goldstein, described it as a “general interest independent bookstore with an emphasis on high-end modern and classic literature and important non-fiction work.”

Community Book Store in Park Slope, Brooklyn

The Bogle Fellow book exchange was made possible in large part due to the support and partnership of Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Photo by: Kira O'Brien

Goldstein said that he was enthusiastic about O’Brien’s idea of a book exchange program. “We are fervent book missionaries,” he said. “In trying times such as these, they become even more essential.” 

The store itself has been closed due to COVID-19, and now completes sales remotely and through delivery. Goldstein says that he absolutely sees value in the connective power of books in these trying times. 

“A friend in Ohio and I have been texting back and forth about two of my favorite new books,” he said. “We're both sequestered and isolated.. But talking about books is a great way to span 700 miles or two blocks, to relieve the tension, to keep the mind going.”

This sentiment was shared by the Bogle Fellows, who spoke about how the books were helping them in this time of social distancing. 

“I feel that reading about other perspectives in a time where we are all socially distant is important for our happiness and health,” said Nelson Chow ’23, who will be working this summer with Freeport Recreation Center and Aquatic Solutions, in Freeport, New York, to expand access to CPR/AED/First Aid/Lifeguard training for low-income students. 

Daisy Bissonette ’23, who will be working this summer with NuMED Inc., a medical device company in upstate New York specializing in developing cardiovascular catheters, agreed, saying “being able to connect with the other Bogle Fellows through this book exchange is a great opportunity to find a starting point to talk about service, even when we are all separated by social distancing.”
As for specific books that he recommends at this time, Goldstein mentioned “The Splendid and the Vile,” which is about Winston Churchill and The Battle of Britain. “It's hard to feel sorry for oneself when one thinks of the constant terror of living in London in 1940,” he said. “But there are so many good books for a time like this. I'm mixing serious books with mysteries, which are wonderful escapes.”

The Bogle Fellows also shared their thoughts on the books they had received. Chow said that “the books are fantastic and you really get the sense that this book was selected with your personality and values in mind.” Bissonnette, who has been reading “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness,” a book about one woman’s struggle with encephalitis, said that “the book relates to my Bogle Fellowship project as I will be interning at a medical company that creates pediatric cardiological devices tailored to the rare and complex cases of congenital heart defects.”

After exchanging books, O’Brien is also sending fellows a second package of stationary and stamps. “I encourage you to use this stationery to write to the fellow whom you’ve exchanged books with -- as well as anyone else you think would benefit from a note,” she wrote to each fellow. “In these days of social isolation, it is more important than ever for us to reach out to others and show that we care.” 

For O’Brien herself, the book exchange is both a way to continue the important work of the Bogle Fellowship and relieve some of the stresses of working in self-isolation. 

“When I’m feeling trapped in isolation -- and being in Brooklyn it’s a very real sense of quarantine -- books are like a vacation,” said O’Brien. “They give me the opportunity to connect with others and with myself, and in many ways escape the current situation. I’m feeling an enormous sense of Zoom-exhaustion, so the opportunity to get away from screens and even sit on my front stoop with a coffee and a book feels like heaven.”

Bogle Fellow books for 2020

The Bogle Fellows are reading a collection of titles selected by their peers and Program Coordinator Kira O'Brien. Photo by Kira O'Brien

Read along with the Bogle Fellows

First-person narratives on identifying the ‘American Dream’ and personal exploration:

  • “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins, recommended by Nelson Chow
  • “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X, as told to Alex Healy, recommended by Abdelhamid Arbab
  • “Freedom is a Constant Struggle” by Angela Davis, from O’Brien

Stories that explore notions of grief and transformation: 

  • “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui, recommended by Celine Pham
  • “Where Reasons End” by Yiyun Li, recommended by Preeti Chemiti
  • “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch, from O’Brien

Explorations of the impact of power and privilege on access and education:

  • “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance, recommended by Madison Mellinger
  • “The Privileged Poor” by Anthony Jack, recommended by Sim Chopra
  • “Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Cost of Upward Mobility” by Jennifer Morton, from O’Brien

On cultivating mindsets of service, which empower local communities:

  • “When Helping Hurts” by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, recommended by Mikala Parnell
  • “The One-Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka, recommended by Colton Loftus
  • “Soul of a Citizen” by Paul Rogat Loeb, from O’Brien

On the intersections of health and care:

  • “Complications” by Atul Gawande, recommended by Daisy Bissonette
  • “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi, recommended by Sienna Byrne
  • “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness” by Susannah Cahalan, from O’Brien