Colum McCann spoke about his novel "Let the Great World Spin"—the summer reading book for the Class of 2017—in Baldwin Auditorium Friday night.
McCann gave first years advice on the college experience, spoke about his writing process and fielded questions about the intricacies of the novel.
At the start of his speech, he spoke of the “four-letter f-word” and urged the audience to play a brief game of hangman to determine what word he was thinking of.
The word was "fail."
“The process of embracing the idea that you might possibly fail is the most vivifying experience,” McCann said.
Quoting fellow author Kurt Vonnegut, McCann urged students to jump off cliffs continually and build wings on the way down.
"Let The Great World Spin" takes place in 1974 and is centered on an actual event— a man who walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers. McCann noted the tightrope walker's choice of creation and daring over fear of failure.
First year Surya Veerabagu found McCann’s words about failure to be comforting.
“I love how he talked about accepting difficult times," Veerabagu said. "We’re all at Duke and have just finished our first week of classes, so it’s definitely on our minds as we are all already facing challenges."
McCann noted that his advice included things he would want his own daughter to know. Among the most important qualities, he said, is optimism.
“The process of learning to be optimistic is probably the most important thing,” McCann said. “Cynics have it easy... I’d much prefer to be the man with his heart on his sleeve than be a cynic.”
He urged first years to open their hearts to experience because such a philosophy is at the core of a good education.
In addition, McCann discussed the book's ties to 9/11, speaking of his own personal connection to the tragedy. Not only was he living in New York City at the time, but his father-in-law was in one of the towers and survived the attack.
After seeing his father-in-law that day, McCann said he knew that he would someday write about the event.
McCann said he knew he would write an allegory, something that would relate to 9/11 without being explicitly connected to the event. He added that most importantly, he wanted readers to find solace in the lives and struggles of the book's many characters.
Though some did not connect the book to 9/11 while reading, McCann provided the audience with his thoughts on how the book thematically relates to the historic event.
He said that one of the great things about the literary world is the ability we have to interpret pieces of literature.
“This book can be read as having nothing to do with 9/11,” he said.
The audience gave McCann a positive reception at the end of the speech.
“For a man with such literary talent, he was amazingly modest,” said first year Levi Edouna Obama. “He didn’t just write this book for acclaim. He wrote what he felt.”