My reading life: Joe Holt

Author: Christine Cox


Joe Holt loves to read. Going into his office is like entering a real-life game of Jenga, squeezing your way around stacks of books and praying you don’t accidently knock one over. But the stacks are more than a book collection: they correspond to the many lives Holt lived prior to becoming an associate professional specialist in business ethics and negotiations at Mendoza. He’s been a gym teacher, a Jesuit priest, a corporate lawyer, and the director of a clinic on entrepreneurship. He even has a bartender certificate. Essentially, his library is his life story.

Holt compares his approach to reading to the P90X fitness program that relies on “muscle confusion” to get you in shape by working different muscles in different ways rather than doing the same workout all the time. “I try to do a kind of P90X for the mind, which involves reading what you must for your job but then also regularly reading literature, other scholarly disciplines, other cultural or ideological viewpoints, or in different languages. Hopefully that keeps mental ruts from forming.”

In this Q&A, Holt shares more about his reading routine and books that have made a difference in his life.

What have you read recently?
JH: I recently read Finance and the Good Society, by Yale economist Robert Shiller. Often the goal of business ethics seems to be not doing bad things, but I think ethics at its best also emphasizes the good that business can do. Otherwise, it’s like having the goal when it comes to your health of not being sick rather than the goal of thriving. In any case, the reputation of the financial industry, that many of our students will enter, took a major hit after the 2008 financial crisis. Shiller seeks to restore and enhance its reputation by showing how finance has contributed to the good of individuals and society through inventions like insurance and mortgages, and how creativity in the financial sector could more effectively serve the greater good in important ways. 

Another book I recently read is The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, a former priest. Some religious books help you know more about God while others, like this one, help you know and love God more. It also helps you embrace being a “ragamuffin,” one of the Bad News Bears of the spiritual life. As ragamuffins we are like the sons in the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15 who are loved because their father is loving rather than because they have earned that love. The more we embrace that, the more our faith lives can be motivated more by love and gratitude than by fear.

I like reading underneath and around subjects, so I’m reading Mercy by Cardinal Walter Kasper. Kasper, who has been called “the Pope’s theologian,” describes mercy as the heart of the Gospel and key to Christian living and that is a welcome message. Pope Francis has said “This book has done me so much good.” So hopefully it will do me some good, too! Then I’ll read The Church of Mercy, by Pope Francis himself, and hopefully understand it better having read Kasper first.

I also regularly read poetry, short stories or drama, usually before going to bed. I like good stories and beautiful writing, and if the scholarly language I spend most of my day with is like the power of the Clydesdale horse pulling a wagon, then the literary language I read at night is like the grace of the horses at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna that dance to classical music.  Right now, I’m read Aimless Love by Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate. I just love his knack for gracefully highlighting the extraordinary significance of the seemingly ordinary events in our lives.

What do you read on a regular basis?
JH: I like to consider different viewpoints, so I read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and other news sources from the U.S. and abroad. I also regularly listen to both progressive and conservative radio and TV programs. It’s my experience and belief that the truth often lies somewhere between opposing ideological points of view. So it’s good to consider different sides of important issues.

What books do you think every Mondoza student should read?
JH: Why We Do What We Do by Edward Deci. I think if you’re going to lead people, you need to understand what motivates them. A profound insight I gained from this book is that leaders should focus less on how to motivate people and more on how to create conditions under which people will become and remain self-motivated.

Another good book for business people is this Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World by Stephen Green, former chairman of HSBC and an ordained priest in the Church of England. The book looks at how to run business in a way that achieves greater profitability and shareholder return, and also has a positive impact on the common good, especially helping the poor. Like Finance and the Good Society, it reaffirms the great good our students can do in business so that business can be a calling rather than merely a career. 

What’s your favorite book and why?
JH: The Bible. And honestly, I got embarrassed into reading it. During Lent of my junior year at Boston College, I went to daily Mass and was feeling pretty good about myself when I went back to my apartment. Then my roommates asked about the sermon and the Gospel reading of the day, and I realized that I had no idea 20 minutes after the service ended. That’s when I started to read the Bible regularly. I decided if I was going to continue going to Mass, I was going to pay attention to what God is trying so say to us. That reading has led me to experience Jesus less as an historic figure and more as a living presence, and that was like experiencing my faith in 3D for the first time.