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Swimming Across by Andrew S. Grove


Rating: (Recommended)


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Immigration and Naturalization

Intel Chairman Andy Grove has written a fine memoir, Swimming Across, that I’ve finally gotten around to reading. The book, unlike many memoirs, presents the embarrassing anecdotes along with the salutary one, and readers are engaged in the story early on, and attention rarely flags. By the end of the book, which marks Grove’s arrival in America following the Hungarian Revolution, we’ve enjoyed the blooming of a somewhat geeky kid into a bright and energetic chemistry student, welcomed by American hospitality, and able to use his talents in a new society. Those who would like to close our borders to immigrants may want to read this story to rethink their position. Here’s an excerpt (pp. 196-7) that provides lessons for all about following our multiple interests in life:

My fascination with opera also continued to grow, so much so that I decided to take singing lessons. This wasn't the first time I had tried to get involved in singing. Some years before, I had tried out for a folk-singing group. I liked the sound of my own voice, and I fantasized that I would be discovered as a latter-day Chaliapin. I showed up at the audition, but when I belted out one of the few Hungarian folk songs I knew, the chorus director cut my performance short and sent me home. After this rejection, I didn't try to sing for a long time.

It took courage to try out again, but some years had passed and my voice had changed, and to me, at least, it sounded much better than before. The audition was longer this time. I sang, then the accompanist played some chords and I had to break out each of the notes of the chords to demonstrate that I had a measure of musical aptitude. This time, to my relief, I was accepted.

The lessons were half an hour long, two evenings a week. They were outright boring. The teacher made me practice singing scales. She was pretty matter-of-fact about my voice and paid a lot more attention to the advanced singers. I didn't care. I was learning real singing, so I persevered with vigor, using the times when I was alone in the apartment to practice. I would have been mortified if anyone at home heard me. My singing was not meant for friends and family, only for me and my teacher.

After several months of scales, during which my singing voice got smoother and more flexible, I was promoted to simple Schubert songs. The particular songs my teacher chose must have had great pedagogical value because they were just as dull as the scales. I persistently asked to sing something more interesting, and eventually my teacher took pity on me and allowed me to I choose the next song. I asked to learn my favorite aria from Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro. In it, Figaro explains the realities of army life to a young boy who is anxious to join up. The music varies between lyrical and military melodies, between cajoling and aggressive tones, representing the variety of drama that I craved.

This was a lot more intricate than the Schubert songs, and it took months to get it right. Not only did I have to control my voice through the range of the aria, but I had to learn to pace the music just right. I had never really learned to read music, and I always had trouble with timing. But I loved every minute I spent on it, even when I had to sing particular parts over and over.

One winter evening after school, I got involved in a deep discussion with one of my schoolmates when I realized it was time to go to singing class. He came with me and we continued our argument all the way there and even while sitting in the anteroom until it was time for my class. I went in and practiced the Figaro aria. My classmate had told me he didn't know anything about music and wasn't interested in opera, so I was surprised that he was still there when I came out. We resumed our walk, but before we could resume our argument about chemistry he asked, "What was that stuff you sang? I could hear you through the door and it sounded really neat."

When my singing went well, it made me feel better about everything, even if things at school were tough. I thought I had made an important discovery. I realized that it's good to have at least two interests in your life. If you have only one interest and that goes sour, there's nothing to act as a counterbalance to lift your mood. But if you have more than one interest, chances are something will always go okay.

Thanks to Grove’s interest in chemical engineering, he went on to American schools and business, citizenship, and the building of a great American company. Enjoy reading Swimming Across and the early life of a remarkable individual.

Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the August 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Across.htm


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