Robert D. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University and the author of 14 books, including Bowling Alone and, most recently, Our Kids. Before talking about whether poor children can still achieve the American dream, he explained in the Zócalo green room why, despite the fact that he hasn’t bowled seriously since he was a kid, he still can tell you where to find the niftiest bowling alleys all over the world.
Q: What’s the strangest place where you’ve ever come up with a great idea?
A: I was spending a fall at Oxford in the early 1990s, trying to write a book about—of all things—Italian local government. I woke up in the middle of the night and walked over to the library, looking for some book that would be so boring it would put me to sleep. Foundations of Social Theory seemed to be just the ticket. I turned to a chapter on social capital, which didn’t mean anything to me—and I realized, this was why certain cities in Italy were well governed from the 13th to the 20th century. Almost instantly when I began reading that chapter, I realized, this is a big deal. And the whole next quarter century since that night, all I’ve been doing is writing about social capital. Social capital and religion, social capital and diversity, social capital and inequality. And if I had been able to get to sleep that night, I would not have walked across the quad looking for the most boring book I could find.
Q: What’s the last great book you read?
A: I’m a big fan of David McCullough. I think I’ve read everything he’s written. He’s got a new book out on the history of the Wright brothers. It’s a really interesting story of technology in a period of American history that was in many respects like ours. It was almost 100 years ago exactly; it was the Gilded Age; America was being split apart in many ways; and learning to fly was a big deal, like the Internet today. But one way in which that time was different from ours is that I don’t think the country is now extremely optimistic in the same way.
Q: What’s your favorite place to go bowling?
A: I haven’t bowled seriously since I was in Port Clinton, Ohio, where I grew up. But after I published the article and then the book Bowling Alone, every journalist I ever met thought, “Here’s a neat idea! Let’s get a picture of Putnam in a bowling alley.” I’ve been in bowling alleys all over the country and the world. I can tell you the niftiest bowling alley in Tokyo, London, Detroit, and St. Louis, the bowling capital of America.
Q: What comforts you?
A: This is sappy: She does. (Points to his wife, Rosemary Putnam.) We’ve been hanging out together for 52 years. I’m kind of unstable—I get high and I get excited and I get down—and she’s really stable, really centered. And she provides social capital. I talk a good game about it, but our close friends recognize that she’s the serious social capitalist in the relationship. She does connecting, I write about connecting.
Q: What’s your guilty pleasure?
A: I smoke a pipe. And it didn’t used to have to be guilty. But it’s so impolitic now to smoke anything. If I smoked pot, that’d be great. But smoking a tobacco pipe …
Q: Who was your childhood hero?
A: John F. Kennedy. On January 20, 1961, we traveled to Washington from Philadelphia, and we heard him with our own ears say, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” And the hair now on the back of my neck is standing up as I remember my adolescent reaction. I felt like he was speaking to me personally. I felt, Sign me up! I was a science major at that point, and I thought he was telling me to use my talents to make America a better place to live. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Q: What’s your favorite condiment?
A: Probably pickle relish.
Q: What would your mascot be?
A: Who’s that old guy in the Star Wars movies? Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Q: How did you get into trouble as a child?
A: I was once almost arrested actually in Port Clinton. It seemed terrible at the time. On the way back from a date, I backed over a neighbor’s mailbox coming out of the driveway. And I didn’t report it. I knew I should. It was not hard figuring out which kid in the middle of the night had done that. And the police asked, “Were you out in your parents’ car last night?” And I crumbled because I couldn’t imagine keeping up this pretense. And I confessed, and they did not even throw the book at me.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: I usually sleep pretty well. My normal working hours are very late—I work until 3, 4, 5 a.m., and then sleep late. I developed that habit when we had young kids. It means I can almost always sleep, since I’m almost always sleep-deprived.
*Photo by Jake Fabricius.