Eric Liu's "Guiding Lights" is not an easy book to classify or criticize. It rounds up some remarkable teachers and captures them with aplomb; serves up tasty

Share story

“Guiding Lights: The People Who Lead Us Toward Our Purpose in Life”
by Eric Liu
Random House, 240 pp., $19.95

Eric Liu’s “Guiding Lights” is not an easy book to classify or criticize. It rounds up some remarkable teachers and captures them with aplomb; serves up tasty social commentary and moments of arresting autobiography. As for criticism, the short take is this: Buy it, read it, pass it on. These tales of smart, unorthodox teachers, and the passages woven in about Liu’s young daughter, make very good reading.

Now, for the longer view. At first, “Guiding Lights” moves toward something greater than the sum of its vignettes; it promises to be a critical, motivating work meant to shake up our conventional notions of teaching and learning, all for the better. Ultimately it falls somewhat short on this larger goal; Liu doesn’t close the sale. He provides an engaging tour guide through some heartwarming mentor-student partnerships, but he doesn’t offer enough impetus or guidance to get us there.

Coming Up

Eric Liu

The author of “Guiding Lights” will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle. Free (206-634-3400;

He will also appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle’s Central Library in the Microsoft auditorium (206-386-4636 or

Liu, 36, who has spent a lot of time breathing decidedly rare air, is suitably equipped to offer thoughts on finding one’s productive purpose. A Yalie and a Harvard Law grad, he’s a former speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Clinton. Liu’s 1999 book, “The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker,” rightly made him a sought-after commentator on race and other social issues. He’s a fellow at the New American Foundation, writes for Slate, weighs in on CNN and National Public Radio, and teaches at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.

His writing here is intelligent and honest; he has a gift for lean, clever profiles. The chapter on a Juilliard-trained pianist opens this way:

“His entire life, Eric Barnhill had tried to keep it together. And he had. He had willed himself to walk a certain way, to talk a certain way. But he sensed something long before he could say it: that eventually, he would have to let things fall apart. And he would need someone to show him how.”

Barnhill and his unlikely mentor, a mad-genius of a eurhythmics instructor, are among the sources Liu taps to demonstrate flourishing teacher-student collaborations. Liu defines “teacher” very broadly, also interviewing a Seattle Mariners pitching coach, a muralist who brought stunning public art to Los Angeles, a priest working in gang territory, the patriarch in a family of musical stars and other fascinating folks.

In these compact sketches, culled from hundreds of interviews, Liu is a heat-seeking missile, zeroing in on key personality traits. Of Hollywood acting coach Ivana Chubbuck, he writes: “Her ambition is so feral, so unapologetically fierce and needy. She has to win every scene. She has to teach every student to win every scene, to conceive of scenes and of life as something you either win or lose.”

He also jumps in, quite bravely, to reveal his own reactions to these strong personalities and the introspection they foster, allowing himself no quarter: “I’ve been hounded by the fear that inner peace, if it arrives, will neuter me and drain me of ambition.”

“The Five Principles of Mindful Mentoring,” common traits Liu found in his diverse group of teachers, are meant to be useful tinder but are not quite the stuff to light a fire under most readers. The first principle reads: “Life-changing teachers receive before they transmit. That is, they are more than simply powerful communicators. They tune in to a learner’s frequency of motivation and makeup, and only then do they send out the signals of their lesson.”

Liu brought some lively company to the table, but didn’t host any rousing dinnertime debate. Perhaps he worried overmuch about cramming prescriptive thoughts down our throats, or wanted to let the good tales inspire all on their own — a legitimate approach for some writers, but one that fails to take advantage of Liu’s catholic abilities.