What a President Reads

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What A President Reads

Here in the states it has become a tradition of sorts to publish the list of books our President is planning to read on his summer holiday. This year I was pleased to see President Obama bringing along Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese, one of the best books I read last year, and a book I have mulled over many times since. Also included in the President’s book bag was To the End of the Land by David Grossman and The Warmth of Other Suns, a non-fiction work by Isabel Wilkerson. During his first day on Martha’s Vineyard, he stopped off at the Bunch of Grapes bookshop with his two daughters and increased his reading list by purchasing Emma Donoghue’s award winning book, Room, as well as a trilogy by the excellent writer, Daniel Woodrell.

Of course, as to be expected, when these titles were made public some in the press found the President’s book list worthy of strident, and somewhat amusing, criticism. He was taken to task by writer Robin Black for not reading enough women authors. Then, for the National Review, writer Tevi Troy composed a snarky little opinion piece that labeled the President’s list, as well as the Vineyard bookshop he patronized, as “liberal” and included this asinine sentence about the President’s choices:
“ First, five of the six are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president," he explains, "because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality."

Now, I recognize that there are those determined to deride President Obama on anything and everything possible, and while it would be quite entertaining to take on Mr. Tevi’s article point by irksome point, I’ll leave all that to others. You can read the entire article here and make your own judgments about the validity of his criticism. However, I am prepared to denounce his foolish assertion that to read fiction carries the implication that one is “out of touch with reality”.
To Kill a Mockingbird, The Road, A Tale of Two Cities.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Grapes of Wrath.
Readers of these books, out of touch with reality?

Reading fiction, great fiction, requires not only a curious mind, but an open one as well. There is truth to be found in fiction, often inarticulate truth that hides between the lines of simple sentences, waiting to be discovered by a discerning and questioning eye. Fiction allows one to place oneself in the skin of others. It can create an empathy for our shared humanity that continues to unfold for the reader long after the books have closed.

Speaking for myself, I want my President to read fiction. I want his reading list to be deep and far-reaching. I want him to imagine what it’s like to walk around the world in the shoes of the poor and illiterate as well as the educated and powerful.
I want him to understand what motivated Atticus Finch to sit all night outside the jail cell of Tom Robinson.
I want him to consider both the desperation of Tom Joad and the idealism of Don Quixote.
I want him to know what made Septimus Warren Smith throw himself out that window in London and why Shylock demanded his pound of flesh.
I want him to contemplate what the green light meant to Jay Gatsby.
And in the case of one of President Obama’s choices for this year’s holiday, I want him reading To The End of the Land, to encounter a mother who sets off on a walk across the country of Israel while her son is called up for a 28 day military exercise just because she cannot bear being home if and when the authorities try to find her should he perish in combat. Yes, I want him to read that book.

If Mr. Tevi finds readers of fiction to be out of touch with reality, I can only shudder to think how he views those of us who read poetry.
But I’ll leave that to another day.

Fiction reveals truth reality obscures”.
Ralph Waldo Emerson