Ron Gross’s book The Independent Scholars Handbook is one of the my favorite adult education works of all time. The book, which was first published in 1982 and then re-released in 1993, contains the stories of individuals from every background whose lives contained a serious commitment to research, investigation, theory building and other intellectual enterprises. In addition, the book provides a resource guide with specific suggestions on how to move from “Messy Beginnings” to the finished product of research–whatever your field of endeavor.
One of my favorite stories in the book comes when the author, beginning his career as the “lowest of the low” in the world of New York publishing, comes face to face with editorial giant Max Schuster…
From Ronald Gross, The Independent Scholar’s Handbook: The indispensable guide for the stubborn intelligence.
The second such moment occurred on the first day at my first job. I had obtained a position as the lowest of the low at the New York publishing house of Simon and Schuster. Max Schuster, the cofounder of the firm was a publisher of the old breed, in the days before conglomerates consumed book publishers for breakfast.
I had barely found my way to and from the men’s room when the summons came to wait upon Max in his vast book-lined office-study. For a young man fresh to the world of work, this was an awesome assignation. I found myself sitting in an armchair in what was referred as the “Inner Sanctum”–an armchair that had been occupied by Berttrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Bernard Berenson, Will Durant and hundreds of other writers, philosophers, historians, novelists and poets.
Max Schuster was not a man to mince words or to warm you up with small talk. His words were well honed; he obviously had delivered this message before and knew exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. Fixing me with a firm eye over the glistening mahogany desktop he declared: “I have one bit of advice for you–not just for success in this business, but personally. Begin at once–not today or tomorrow or at some indefinite date, but right now, at this precise moment–to chose some subject, some concept, some great name or idea or idea in history on which you can eventually make yourselves the world’s supreme expert. Start a crash program immediately to qualify yourself for this self-assignment through reading, research and reflection.” In his library-like office, such a program did not seem impossible, as a generous slice of the world’s wisdom was within arms reach.
Max knew perfectly well that the path to such expertise was no smooth sailing, so he followed these imperious injunctions with a warning: “I don’t mean the sort of exerts who avoids all the small errors as he sweeps on to the grand fallacy. I mean the one who has the most knowledge, the deepest insight and the most audacious willingness to break new ground.”
“Such a disciplined form of self-education,” he assured me, gesturing at the photos of famous authors that adorned his desk, “will give you prestige eminence and worldwide contacts. You’ll enjoy correspondence and fellowship with others interested in the same specialty. It will add a new dimension and a new unity to your entire education. It will give you a passionate sense of purpose. The cross fertilization of ideas will become an exciting and unending adventure that will add a total perspective to your entire life.”
I would like to report that this advice changed my life, setting me on the course that has culminated in this book. I cannot. Max’s advice fell on deaf ears. I was too young, still convinced that college was the place where one did serious learning, still to fixated on getting started in a career in the “real” world. I did not get the point. Yet the words had registered–something within me said softly, “Print this.” An later, on other occasions in very different settings, the practicality of Max Schuster’s advice became manifest.