Books

(Sean Kelly / For The Times / May 16, 2014)

Every spring, during college graduation season, I think about a former professor who uttered two astonishing sentences that changed the course of my life.

I was a disaffected student, attending community college because I didn't have the grades, the money or the motivation to attend a four-year university. I had no real interest in business — my major — but my mother, a typical immigrant, had convinced me it would be the most practical course of study.

My parents didn't know much about college. My mother never had the opportunity to go, and my father's plans to attend college were derailed by World War II. He was an obsessive reader who would have thrived in college, but after more than nine months on the front lines in France, Luxembourg and Germany, his ambition dissipated.

I might not have finished college myself if it hadn't been for a required class in which I had little interest. On a fall morning during my sophomore year, I was seated in a large lecture hall — back row, left corner — for my Econ 1 class. As the professor lectured about macroeconomic theory, I propped up my textbook, slipped the novel "John Barleycorn" by Jack London inside, and began reading.

After about 20 minutes, the professor pushed aside his notes and began walking toward my side of the classroom. Every student but me, I was told later, watched him traverse the aisle toward the back of the lecture hall. I was engrossed in the novel.

When he reached my desk, he slipped behind me, leaned over and snatched the book from my hands. I suddenly realized that every single student in the class was staring at me. I was mortified. My throat went dry and I could hear my heart pounding in my chest.

The professor leafed through a few pages of the novel. The absolute silence in the classroom was terrifying.

Finally, he held the book above his head, waved it and announced in a stentorian tone: "This student won't be spending the rest of his life studying columns of debits and credits. He's interested in literature." He pronounced the last word with genuine reverence.

He handed the book back to me, strolled back down the aisle and resumed his lecture.

I was so stunned, I spent the rest of the class in a daze.

During the next few weeks, I pondered his reaction. If an economics professor valued literature as much as or even more than economics, perhaps there was some real value in all the reading I was doing outside of class. Maybe reading novels wasn't just an escape and a diversion. Maybe the study of literature would be a worthwhile pursuit. And if I could succeed as a literature student, maybe this would lead me in a direction that might enhance my career prospects. I had no idea what career this would be, but I hoped that by the time I finished school, I'd find out.

I changed my major to English, raised my grades and transferred to UC Santa Barbara. I appreciated school for the first time, and I discovered that a love of reading translated to an affinity for writing. I attended graduate school in journalism and embarked on a career as a newspaper reporter, including two decades at the Los Angeles Times. I eventually left daily journalism to write books.

Last month, after telling this story to group of college students, I decided to give the professor a call. I could only recalled his last name, so I contacted a member of the faculty alumni association. He put me in touch with David Kaplan, who is 83; he retired 14 years ago.

The first thing I asked Kaplan was whether he remembered our encounter. He did not.

"But it doesn't surprise me that I'd respond like that," he said. "It reflects what I was thinking about at the time and what I was going through, personally."

After obtaining bachelor's and master's degrees in economics at UCLA and teaching the subject for a decade at Santa Monica College, Kaplan had come to the conclusion that his education was narrow and incomplete. He began taking literature classes at UCLA and reading widely on his own.

Kaplan continued teaching economics, and to believe in the need for practical majors such as business. But he also began to think that university officials who de-emphasized the humanities, and students who dismissed their significance, were misdirected.

Economic theory is important, he told me, but reading authors such as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dickens, Shakespeare and Wordsworth has a different and equally important kind of worth, shaping students' values and deepening their understanding of life. The writing, critical thinking skills and appreciation for creativity that students learn as liberal arts majors, Kaplan said, will enrich their lives and also serve them well in a variety of careers, including business.

"I probably reacted to you the way I did because I believe that reading a novel is as valuable as a dry economics lecture," he said, "and the themes might resonate more and, ultimately, have a greater impact on your life."

Miles Corwin's most recent book is the crime novel "Midnight Alley." He teaches literary journalism at UC Irvine.