Meet a Reader: Sebastian Von Zerneck

Here is my interview with Sebastian Von Zerneck, a high school student and the featured “reader” in this month’s “What Are You Reading?” column.  A shorter version of this will appear in today’s print Catholic Post.  I’m grateful to Sebastian for his willingness to participate here, as well as his remarkable work with Project Bright Bookcases.
 
 
Who: Sebastian VonZerneck, a 17-year-old rising senior at Peoria Notre Dame. 

Last summer I started Project Bright Bookcases to provide good books to kids in places where kids might not encounter books.   I was at the Peoria courthouse and noticed a room where children go when their parents are in court. My mother was with me, and we had a conversation about how essential quality reading material is at a young age. We also talked about how a lot of teenagers, as they grow up, have no use for the children’s books they’ve accumulated over the years.  I solicited and got donations of more than 2,000 books and several bookcases.  I fixed up the bookcases, and organized the books.  Finally last spring, I sent out letters to various locations organizations in the Peoria area who I heard could use the bookcases. We still have donations coming in and bookcases going out. 

Why I Love Reading:. Until I was 11, I lived in Brooklyn, New York, very close to what I consider the best public library in the world: Brooklyn Public Library. A lot of homeless people hung out or lived nearby, and I remember thinking that it wasn’t a terrible place to be homeless. 

I guess you could say I’ve been surrounded by literature since birth. We’ve always had a lot of books at our house, including several hundred stacked in shelves in the room my brother and I shared.  My grandfather Tom Klise wrote The Last Western; my aunts Kate and SarahKlise are children’s book authors. 

 I love reading because it allows me to experience times, locations, and situations that I otherwise couldn’t. I’ve also learned a lot from reading, probably more than I’ve learned in school. In fiction, what happens is shown to you, rather than told to you. This makes the information much more engaging than that presented in a textbook or class lecture. A teacher can talk all day about a certain time period, say, the Stalin era, but by reading Animal Farm I can honestly say that I have a solid understanding of all the various motives and ideologies that are crucial to knowing why things happened the way they did. Reading is, to me, a way to gain first-hand insight into a situation, which is difficult to gain just from hearing about it through an outside source. 

What I’m Reading Now: The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, follows a young French nobleman and his three friends in the King’s musketeers trying to protect their King and Queen from the sinister machinations of Cardinal Richelieu. This book is incredible. It’s one thing to hear about the harshness of this time period, the far-reaching influence of certain key political figures, and the chess game that they played across Europe. But to read this book is to experience 17th century France first-hand. The characters are hilarious and memorable, the plot is fast and entertaining, and the politics are totally intriguing. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes a good adventure, or is interested in French history. 

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, was written in the 6th century BC China. It’s hard to believe this work was written so long ago because the strategies it presents are still very applicable to modern thinking. Ideas on how to divide your army and how to use spies may seem of no practical use to someone who is not in the military, but if you think about it the tactics that Sun Tzu discusses are universal. A good example is card games. I know a lot of people who buy books about how to win at poker, or whatever. This book trumps all, no pun intended. Things like getting into the mind of your enemy by bluffing or underplaying are masterfully dissected in The Art of War. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has need to think strategically:  In other words, everyone. 

My Favorite Books: Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, is a dark, dystopian novel about a totalitarian government that watches people even to the point of thought surveillance. Two civil servants become fed up with the regime and rebel in secret. To me, the politics were not even the most interesting part of the story. What really made an impact on me was the effect of the government’s mind-washing techniques on the protagonists. I won’t give anything away, but the conclusion was haunting. I thought about this book for a long time after I finished it, and that’s why I count it as one of my favorites. 

Shogun, by James Clavell, is an epic story about Tokugawa’s rise to power in 17th century Japan.  Japan was isolated from Europe for many centuries, and, because of that, Japanese ideas on philosophy and religion bore almost no resemblance to those of the first European visitors. After reading this almost 1200-page book, however, I really began to understand what motivated Japanese society during that era. Excuse the cliché, but it’s one of those stories that I literally could not put down once I became engrossed in the complex plot. The characters become so sympathetic that many of the events in the story become almost as emotional as those of real life. For those reasons, I recommend this book to anyone who can read.