Honored Alumni Lecture: Paul Allen on Reading from “the Best Books”

At the Annual Alumni Achievement lecture, Paul Allen, co-founder of Ancestry.com, shared the value of books in the overwhelming influence of the technological age.

unnamedPROVO, Utah (Oct. 24, 2016)—In an age inundated with ever-growing technological distractions, how does a society get back to meaningful connection and knowledge? At the Annual Alumni Achievement lecture, Russian major-turned-entrepreneur Paul Allen discussed the need to read and absorb meaningful books as a measure against losing sight of what truly matters.

Allen began with a simple question: what is the best book that you have read this year, and why?

“I have been able to think back on hundreds of books that have blessed my life, changed my life, expanded my mind, touched my heart, helped me feel connected to other people, helped me with ideas and inspiration that I then applied in business or in my family life,” Allen said.
In his lecture Allen addressed the demise of books and the impact that it has had on the current cultural climate. More specifically, he highlighted books that have influenced the United States over generations, from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which remains the bestselling American title to date, to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is often credited for intensifying the abolitionist cause.

“A book published at the right time with a literate, information-hungry audience can change the world,” Allen said. “When a literate populous encounters an important work, it changes public opinion, and it literally turns wrongs into rights.”

Over the years, however, technological distractions have slowly filtered in, robbing individuals of both time and initiative to devour influential, life-altering literature. In Allen’s own lifetime, he has seen the advent of the Internet, cell phones, social media, virtual reality and now even gene editing. “Technology is everywhere, it’s accessible, it’s frictionless, and it’s just beginning,” Allen said. “We’re going to be entering an era of distraction that is unprecedented, that none of us is prepared to deal with.”

Allen said that he is grateful for the authors, printers, and publishers that laid the foundation for what he referred to as “important knowledge,” including scientific, medical, and educational knowledge, as well as literature, art, and culture. “All of these things people devoted so much of their lives to producing high quality that could enlighten human beings all over the planet, and give them more capabilities, and more wisdom than was ever possible in the history of the world.”

As Allen reflected on his own experiences at BYU, he expressed his gratitude for a life-changing address delivered by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. In his address, Holland said, “What any true Zion would need—and the present world needs even more—is those educated and spiritual and wise who will sort, sift, prioritize, integrate and give some sense of wholeness, some spirit of connectiveness to great eternal truths.” Applying this speech to his own life, Allen worked tirelessly with family and friends to digitize all of the gospel writings, making them available in every home.

“The D&C says we should seek wisdom out of the best books,” Allen said. “We all know that we gain salvation only as quickly as we gain knowledge, and that the glory of God is intelligence, and all of that intelligence is sitting there waiting for us to find it in these amazing books and these amazing libraries.”

Though Allen joked that although perhaps no one loves social media as much as he does, he warned that there is danger in allowing ourselves to become caught up in mindless distractions. “Our future existence probably depends more than any of us realize on the information we choose to consume on a daily basis,” he said. “Consider the life you will live in ten, twenty, thirty years if you spend hours ingesting social media compared to the amazing content that exists in those glorious libraries in Cambridge and Oxford.”

Allen added that much of the toxicity in the world today is caused by a lack of deep knowledge and distractions that inhibit us from embracing the wisdom encapsulated in the “best books.”

“I’m not afraid of the future because I believe that all of the good things and all the wisdom and knowledge that we need is in front of us, we just need to choose to embrace that and not get caught up in our devices,” he concluded. “Let’s actually get caught up in the best books and seeking the wisdom and the knowledge that is available if we will just look for it.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers events for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.