Josh Basseches Photo: Saty + Pratha © Royal Ontario Museum, 2022
The Royal Ontario Museum CEO Takes Time Out from a Crammed Schedule to Fill Us In on his Favourite Books
In the Shelf Life Questionnaire, Josh Basseches raves about ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ and “Walden’ / BY Shinan Govani / July 15th, 2022
Holding down the fort at Canada’s largest museum certainly doesn’t keep Josh Basseches from curating his own reading. Since he was hired as the director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum in 2016, the Toronto institution has reopened its heritage entrance, ushered in a sprawling, new 10,000 square-foot gallery on the origins of life and inaugurated the world’s first curator of climate change. Until Sept. 25, free admission to the main floor will give the public even more access to art and culture.
The proverbial Renaissance man – who worked at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Mass., and the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Mass., before he arrived in Toronto – does it all, seemingly. With an MBA and an MA under his belt, he is currently completing a PhD in the History of Art and Architecture at Boston University. We’re happy to hear he fits in some reading for pleasure! Mr. ROM filled us in further.
What is the best book you’ve read this year?
I recently finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. What an incredible accomplishment. I couldn’t put it down. A grand narrative about surviving the Second World War, both human and sweeping, complete with a museum twist that reminds me of the ROM’s own gem collection.
What book can’t you wait to dive into?
My father died last fall after a battle with cancer. This has brought issues of aging and death to the front of my mind. My wife just gave me a copy of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and it’s my next book. We all need to grow in our ability to face end-of-life – both ours and those we love – with as much dignity and joy as possible.
What’s your favourite book of all time?
So hard to pick just one, but I’ll select Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I read it when I was 18 and kept a dog-eared copy by my bedside for years. As a young person trying to grow up in a complex world, no book inspired me to think more about how I wanted to live. Many of Thoreau’s observations, so economical in their phrasing, have stayed with me ever since. “As if you could kill time,” Thoreau would have us know, “without injuring eternity.”
What book completely changed your perspective?
Biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner E. O. Wilson writes in his memoir, Naturalist, about how a childhood injury that left him blind in one eye forced him to change his passion, from studying birds – which he could no longer see – to studying ants, which were right under his feet. No book I have read has given me a fresher perspective on the natural world and how to look at it.
If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would it be?
Okay, if we’re talking about dinner – and a long, leisurely one with many courses, lubricated by excellent drink – Oscar Wilde would top my list. Who better to while away an evening of indulgent dining and convivial conversation than the author of The Importance of Being Earnest?