Book-Learning: If Bezos, Gates and Jobs Had Finished the Assignment


Charles Samuels was a professor of English and of Film Studies at Williams College in the 1960s and part of the 1970s. He was, by near all accounts of former students, a terrifying presence in the classroom — not maniacally nor physically nor in volume but in intellect, in rigor and in relentlessness. To a loner, as I was, he was a sharper, clearer edge than I had ever seen or imagined, a force of other nature. He read books with an almost gleeful ferocity and it took no moment to realize that I was moving not too slowly but in truth not moving. I was a tourist to reading.

Samuels was a Brooklyn native, a graduate of Syracuse (B.A.), Ohio State (M.A.), and Cal Berkeley (PhD), a Phi Betta Kappa. He came to teach at Williams in 1961 as a 25-year-old. Williams was proud of its English Department — they were a little surly, irreverent, and wry. Many of them smoked and peered, and poked and laughed with some profanity. They knew Chaucer and Milton and Joyce and they knew that none of them was an angel. They drank and loved food with more than decorum and they were all a little tweedy. Williams is a tweedy valley.

Samuels was not tweedy. When he smiled, part of you got nervous. When he looked at you, all of you got nervous. He had terrible skin, some of the time. 

We handed in our papers like an unemployment line. When he responded (he did not always respond, sometimes the paper simply disappeared), he would begin at the first sentence and trail you to the very end and beyond, in a small, tight script, tracking your thought, your structure, your attempts and your grammar. You took these corrected papers to your own corner — they were you, dissected. If, in that jumble of your mess and his tracking there should appear a correct or a good or a very good, then you were indeed a happy soul.

We took notes, in part to keep up but more to keep at bay our fears of falling behind, being exposed as tourists or falling completely overboard. It was clear, if you went overboard, the boat was not circling back to pull you in. It was not that there was no sense of care or concern — it was simply that the ferocity was so primary that it might be a while before anyone noticed you were not there.

For diversion and action and pleasure, Samuels would turn his full analytic attention toward the cinema. His heroes —  the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, for example — were his perfect opponents, equally fierce and relentless, righteous and passionate, present with their mind and their heart at every moment, every frame. A mythic match, in a field where few had brought such weaponry.

I had no idea, nor even image, that you could see a film with such intensity, that you could look and hear and feel such detail, that its construct had in every sense been intentional and literal. It was the 60s, so the air was filled with minds going off in many directions and Samuels was gleeful with the tasks of finding the brilliances and casting out the fools and frauds.

In 1974, to many peoples’ surprise and deep sorrow, Charles Samuels committed suicide in Williamstown, leaving behind his wife and their young daughter.  I do not know any of the circumstances.

But I have imagined what might have been, had Samuels not had such a tragic turn and remained at Williams for a full career. I have even imagined a specific and mythic collision of Charles Samuels and three contemporary business titans — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos, imagined freshmen at Williams, forced by requirements to take English 101. (None of them actually went to Williams and Bezos is actually nine years their junior)

An Imagined Meeting in the Chapin Library office of Professor Charles Samuels, year perhaps 1975 or so.

Gentlemen, I thought a meeting might help to clear up a few matters, regarding your performances in class. I am sure you each imagine there are more important things to do than to excel at English 101. This is a school of many strivers and you three obviously stand out in that regard, a detail that is only partly a compliment. But you are not striving for very much in my territory.

Mr. Jobs — you, for example, had the specific task to read 400 pages of Henry James, in a week. It is clear you have read no more than 30 pages, rather intently but 30 pages nonetheless. You reported that they were brilliantly designed  and I agree but you seem to have fallen on the sword of their craft and not been able to move at all past. There is the book itself ahead, the brilliance is the brilliance but it is even more brilliant that it is but a part of the whole. No one writes with the craft of James and once realized, it is difficult to not forever be pleased with that craft but you must take into account the incredible effort that it must all matter. The craft and the design, but the humans and the consequence and the spoken and the silence.

Yours is an interesting Dickensian name, Mr Jobs, and it shall be worth keeping track as it unfolds with your life and your career, should they involve jobs, won and lost and, of course, Job, the most difficult of debt and trials.

To you Mr. Gates, I must say that you have done a rather intensive analysis of The Sound and the Fury, deep into its construct and history and you have obviously made a great attempt to understand it all. Most remarkably, you have taken everything into account except the sound and the fury, except the passion and the agony. You have missed the South, you have missed William Faulkner, and you have missed the soil of this book. I do not know how you have done this and not gotten any of it on you but that is the case.

And you, Mr Bezos, you have done the strangest work of all for you have not read the book. Do you even like books, Mr Bezos or are they too messy for you? You have written about the foolishness of commerce, the waste and mishandling of so many details left to labor and chance. Is it really your vision that our best course is to clean and simplify, to let people pull back from the layers of time and dirt and error and be delivered to, that our hopes are with screens? Have you watched people watch television? it is not an act of spirit — you may perhaps need a little time with the Italian films. They know about alienation, they know about modernism, they know about concrete and nameless work and the death of spirit — you should visit the films of Antonioni and feel the blood of a people who will not be drained.

But enough, gentlemen. Let me say that you shall each likely be a great success but let me ask you, at what cost? Do you know the phrase, “Too clever by half“?— you should keep it in mind. At one time, it was the skewer of skewers to be so described and no man wanted that skewer sticking out his ribs. But these are sterile times, of both culture and education and clever seems near a virtue now. 

You are each too busy to read. You are each important characters, in a kind of Roman forum, but, contrary to what you might imagine, you are probably not the play, you are only characters. You are not the passion nor the reason — you are only the brokers. With luck, the course shall be set by a greater humanity. And, with luck, your work shall lead you to a chance to join that humanity.

It was the brilliance and fate of Charles Samuels to hold a line. 

Many students went out of their way to avoid his review. There is a report from one of his students that upon hearing of JFK’s assassination on that Friday in November, Samuels screamed at the four walls of his classroom.

Salut, Professore, salut!

Peter Miller
Peter Miller
Peter Miller runs the Peter Miller Design Bookshop, in Pioneer Square, in the alley between First Avenue and Alaska Way. He is there, every day. He has written three books, Lunch at the Shop, Five Ways to Cook, and How to Wash the Dishes. A fourth book, Shopkeeping, A Manual, will be published in Spring 2024, by Princeton Architectural Press.


  1. Jeff, Bill, and Steve are all members in good standing of the League of Nerds. As subject matter experts go, they each owned a spike on the knowledge spectrum. That sort of intensity was useful in each of their endeavors, specialist v. generalist, they were highly specialized.

    Given the choice to wander, I personally would rather the ‘renaissance man’ path.

  2. First rate Peter – brings to mind professor Wesley sturges’ chilling response to a fellow classmate at Yale Law School – “
    Your response reminds me of the 13th stroke of the coo-coo clock – not only is it incredible in and of itself, it casts doubt on the previous strokes.”

  3. A beautiful tribute to professor Samuels. In the fall of 1969, I joined 7 other students in his Shakespeare class. Each class was a frightening but exhilarating experience. We all knew he was the smartest person we had ever encountered. To ease our tension he sometimes had us meet at his home, where his wife would serve fresh cinnamon rolls. Still, it was never a comfortable session. He would remind us that Shakespeare’s intent was right in front of us. Every word is intentional and the meaning will be exposed with earnest and energetic effort.

  4. I can’t speak to your take on Jobs and Bezos, but I know Gates a bit from my years at Microsoft, and I can tell you that you have done him a severe injustice. He is a voracious reader, well beyond science, technology and business. He has a deep appreciation for literature and the arts. One peek at his book recommendations makes this clear. When he was head of Microsoft, twice a year he would take “think weeks” where his staff curated a collection of reading material — books, memos, white papers, journal articles, and more — submitted by people across the company; Gates would decamp for a week, read as much of it as he could, and make well-considered comments (and the occasional directive to his executives to address a point raised by a submission). He is fascinated by DaVinci. One of his earliest philanthropic efforts was to create the Gates Scholars program to increase the number of college students of color in the United States. I found him to be unique as both a broad and deep thinker. Gates has admitted that while at Harvard he rarely went to the lectures for the classes he was enrolled in, preferring to sit in on other classes’ lectures he thought were more interesting.

    Samuels, I am sure, would have found many things to disagree with among Gates’ views (starting with educational philosophy), and I am equally sure that Gates would have learned much from him. But portraying Gates as wading around in the intellectual shallows is neither fair nor accurate.

    Gates is an optimist at heart, believing (often despite evidence to the contrary) that humanity will eventually figure things out. He is a man of outrageous ambition; he wants to rid the planet of polio, malaria, and other diseases that have killed millions (if not billions by now), destroyed societies and held back emerging economies. He wants to make nuclear energy safe and practical. He wanted to give everyone on the planet access to the electronic tools that only business titans enjoyed prior to the PC revolution.

    He is also a deeply flawed man, quick to anger, slow to realize his own faults, and sometimes of dubious personal morality.

    Perhaps the common ground between Samuels and Gates is an unwillingness to suffer fools. I only know of Samuels’ reputation based on your retelling, but Gates is famous for this — and on more than one occasion I was the “fool” who received an upbraiding from him.

    • It’s not about being ‘smart,’ but about overwhelming negative emotions. We who have been depressed — not sad or ‘down’ because those are inadequate descriptors — and those among us who struggle with depression and anxiety, unnoticed, could tell more.

      • Oh boo-hoo. You think you’re somehow special for having suffered deep personal anguish? I easily counted 23 suicides I knew personally before I stopped counting, although the list was certainly longer. Each was unique, but every one left behind grieving and helpless spouses, children, parents,
        friends, loved ones. Think again. Stay alive. You’ll have another chance tomorrow.

  5. This gets at the very heart of something I’ve mulled over for years of hating Facebook and Word. Somewhere else I read that some of these men would have done themselves a favor by finishing Harvard. As someone who always reads a promising book to the end, and only embarked on years of reading pleasure after I graduated and writing my callow opinion no longer took up my time, I never made much money, but I feel rich. I’m looking forward to reading your book about washing dishes. Barbara de la Cuesta

  6. I took Samuels’ film course at Williams in 1972. His class was one of the most memorable of my life. Each time I have moved, his book, “A Casebook on Film” has moved with me. No one is left unscathed.


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