A Visit to Jerry Brown’s Conference Room — and Its Bookcase

The first thing a visitor notices in the austere but cheery gubernatorial conference room now occupied by Jerry Brown isn’t the absence of Conan the Barbarian’s sword or the Southwestern art on the walls, it’s the presence of books.

Lots of them.

And an eclectic mix at that.

The second thing is the glorified tan wood picnic table that serves as a conference table.

“After awhile you want to leave, depending on the strength of your posterior,” Brown told reporters gathered January 26 for a budget briefing.

There’s also a tan, circular, low coffee table – perfect for sitting around cross-legged or lounging on beanbag chairs. There’s a floral arrangement in its center and four books at the compass points.

At one point is The Dancing Column – On Order in Architecture by Joseph Rykwert, a University of Pennsylvania professor.

A large collection of Diego Rivera is at another. Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez was a Mexican painter with reason for truncating his name. He was a communist and fans of Salma Hayek will recall her portrayal of his wife, Frida in the movie of the same name.

There’s also Elements of Western Water Law, a 1913 book by A.E. Chandler. It comes from the Oakland Public Library from which Brown presumably bought it at a sale of old books.

Another picture book Growth Stock: Trees of California rounds out the compass. It was published by the Office of Appropriate Technology, created by Brown the last time he was governor and eiminated by his successor, George Deukmejian, as a cost-cutting move.

But it’s the bookcase that fascinates, brimming — without organization — with topics like religion, urban planning, history, psychology and mysticism.

More significantly, most of the books look to have been read.

At least at some point.

On one shelf there’s Billy Budd, Herman Melville’s unfinished musing on justice through the telling of the court-martialed innocent of the book’s title.

Nearby is Love Is Not Enough by Bruno Bettelheim. Here, the famed and controversial child psychologist discusses the treating of disturbed kids.

There’s a biography of Brown’s father, Pat. The Confessions of St. Augustine. The Nature of Human Consciousness. Spiro Kostof’s A History of Architecture. God Speaks, the intricate 1955 examination of consciousness by Meher Baba that describes the evolution of the atma – soul — and its hoped-for return to the paramatma or over-soul.

A reviewer describes the tome as “famously difficult.”

Aikido – Tradition and the Competitive Edge. Aikido, with its Shinto religion underpinnings, is sometimes called the “peaceful martial art” because it is defensive and redirects the attacker’s force into throws or locks.

“Aikido can be practiced to a late age because this martial art does not rely on flexibility, muscle speed or strength. Thus, it has become especially popular with women and senior citizens,” according to martial-arts-info.com.

Christian Monasticism is on a upper shelf. California by Kevin Starr – a big fan of philosopher Josiah Royce, who Brown quoted in his inaugural speech, is on a lower shelf.

Veil by Bob Woodward. The Great Wave by David Hackett Fischer discusses how the change in the price of goods affected the course of history, starting with the 13th Century and running up to the present day.  His earlier work, Albion’s Seed, is not present. Of Brown’s collection of books, The Great Wave appears one of the more pristine.

A possible leftover from when Brown entered the seminary in the 1950s is Conferences by John Cassian, born in 360 AD. Its one of two books the saint wrote. Conferences catalogues the steps toward eventual union with God employing the ascetic practices of the so-called Desert Fathers of which Cassian was one.

Prominent on a top left shelf, there’s a tall, thick book with a blue cover: Medical Malpractice – A Physician’s Handbook, apparently an earlier edition of what’s now called Medical Malpractice: A Physician’s Sourcebook, edited by Richard Anderson.

Lower, there’s the four-volume collection of George Orwell’s essays, letters and other non-fiction work, originally published in 1968. Animal Farm and 1984 do not appear on any shelves. Judging from fonts, Brown has one of the earlier editions of the Orwell set.

Art Kleiner’s The Age of Heretics about progressive, sometimes radical thinkers who transformed the post-WWII business world is there. As is former Newsweek and Los Angeles Times writer Tom Rosentiel’s self-explanatory Strange Bedfellows: How TV and the Presidential Candidates Changes American Politics.

The Sufis, the seminal work of  Idries Shah, could be a leftover from Brown’s earlier incarnation as governor. As might be Hubert Benoit on Zen.

Poet Gary Snyder’s The Old Ways is present. So is Confessions of an English Opium Eater and a remarkably well-preserved The Next Whole Earth Catalogue.

The peyote-popping crowd would be heartened to see Carlos Castenada’s The Second Ring of Power, originally published in 1977 during Brown’s first term as governor.

Based on examination of other Castenada books purchased during that time by the chief correspondent of California’s Capitol, it appears to be an original edition.

D.H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is near a collection of Sophocles’ plays. That, in turn, is near Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Labyrinths, a collection of deliriously oblique and phantasmagorical stories by Jorge Luis Borges, whose work inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude. That novel, however, is not present on the shelves.

The late Admiral James Stockdale, an Epictetus scholar, would be proud to see a small pocketsize edition of the Stoic philosopher’s discourses.

Born a slave, Epictetus believed, as did other Roman stoics like Emperor Marcus Aurelius, that fate determines what happens to a person and so should be accepted dispassionately. But persons have the power to control their own actions and through reason, self-discipline and a responsibility to care for others will behave honorably.

Stockdale credits this philosophy with saving his life during his eight years of captivity in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.

While the coming budget battle pales against Stockdale’s travails, a re-read of Epictetus might be efficacious.

He’s on the far right of one of the lower shelves.


Filed under: Governor


  1. Great article. Does the Governor having a book lending policy because a couple of those books I want to read.

    Comment by Nancy miller — 1.26.2011 @ 8:39 pm

  2. Yep! Governor Moonbeam is back.

    Comment by CNReporter — 1.26.2011 @ 9:00 pm

  3. Thank you for the pano-view of the Conference Room. It’s confirmed: Governor Brown practices a studied asceticism, asking no more of us than he would himself. That is inspired leadership if only people will transcend the “me” for the “us.” Just ask Epictetus.

    Comment by Robyn Boyer — 1.26.2011 @ 9:20 pm

  4. This article just inspired several additions to my already lengthy “To-Read” list. Nice to have a Governor with big-picture thinking and an enlightened world view.

    Comment by Tish Klein — 1.26.2011 @ 9:57 pm

  5. Discourses of Epictetus practically saved my life 15 years ago. A good choice.

    Comment by Mike Montgomery — 1.26.2011 @ 11:10 pm

  6. Great article Greg. Fascinating.

    Comment by gary delsohn — 1.27.2011 @ 4:21 am

  7. Few would have picked up the Meher Baba piece….good work.

    Comment by Joe Justin — 1.27.2011 @ 8:00 am

  8. I think you mean Billy Bud, Sailor.

    Comment by JMD — 1.27.2011 @ 9:53 am

  9. One of my fondest memories of Governor Brown 1.0 (ok my only fond memory) was passing the night in his office during one of those never ending budget sessions and being able to check out his books. He had a Bible on the coffee table that was extraordinary. This Bible was filled with paintings, drawings, and sketches by Salvador Dali illustrating stories from the Bible and they were all outstanding. Studying them made a long night pass much more quickly.

    Comment by Bill Leonard — 1.27.2011 @ 10:05 am

  10. Great stuff. It should be a required excercise where all newly elected officials are concerned. It says so much about the officeholder.

    Comment by highwayscribery — 1.27.2011 @ 11:02 am

  11. Interesting. I wonder what’s on his ipod?

    Comment by Mike Sicilia — 1.27.2011 @ 11:20 am

  12. Wonderful piece, Greg! So glad to have your unique and intelligent take on all things political.

    Comment by Susan Aronson — 1.27.2011 @ 1:20 pm

  13. wonderfully written piece!

    Comment by ann richardson — 1.30.2011 @ 10:46 am

  14. A fascinating and delightful report, Greg, thanks!
    I especially appreciate the good description of Meher Baba\’s notable tome (a copy of which I happened to sell to an Indian/Persian couple visiting Los Angeles from Orange County yesterday — at the Love Street Bookstore).
    Keep up the good work,
    ps: word to the wise: if I\’m not mistaken, Lawrence\’s novel is entitled Sons and Lovers. Unless the Governor has a rarer edition.

    Comment by David Raphael Israel — 1.31.2011 @ 7:05 am

  15. What iPod?

    Comment by admin — 1.31.2011 @ 4:51 pm

  16. Imagine what the book must have been like for some of his trippier staffers!

    Comment by admin — 1.31.2011 @ 4:53 pm

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