The president’s summer reading list has come out and, in a predictable Pavlovian response, rightwing pundits are jumping all over it. The most outrageous reaction was from a National Review Online writer, who blasted him for reading fiction.
The books that Obama bought at a Martha’s Vineyard bookstore are Marianna Baer’s Frost, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Daniel Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy, David Grosman’s To the End of the Land, Ward Just’s Rodin’s Debutante, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. The NRO writer opined,
Assuming that Brave New World and Frost are for his daughters, this leaves six books that are presumably for presidential consumption, and they may constitute the oddest assortment of presidential reading material ever disclosed, for a number of reasons. First, five of the six are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president, because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality.
Out of touch with reality?! This is a response to literature that Victorian poet Matthew Arnold would describe as “Philistine”—which is to say, ignorant of art’s deep wisdom. We should be celebrating the fact that Obama is reading fiction. We want our presidents to be balanced and grounded, and good fiction helps one remember what is really important in life.
It is only too easy for a president to get lost of all the “stuff” that’s going on—stuff like unemployment and credit downgrade and rising deficits and Libya-Egypt-Palestine-Syria-Israel-Iraq and the war in Afghanistan and European financial meltdown and terrorist threats to the U.S. and climate change and challenges to the EPA and immigration and . . . The question is, how can he hold on to his center in the midst of all this? Literature helps one keep one’s head when all around are losing theirs (to quote Kipling). So thank goodness Obama is reading fiction.
For instance, I’m glad that Obama is reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, which is the one novel on the list that I know (other than Brave New World). It is about doctors and nurses servicing the poor in an Ethiopian hospital during a time of upheaval. I can see why Obama would be drawn to such a book since his mother was driven by such a desire to serve and so is he. The book acknowledges the difficulty of engaging in such service and the flaws in even exemplary characters. If Obama is looking for ways to revitalize his commitment to his ideals and find strength to get him through, Cutting for Stone could be just the book he needs.
But this is just to say why Obama might like the novel. I’m not going to analyze what the book says about him until after he reads it. It’s hard enough to use reading lists to gain insight when people single them out as favorites, and while I’ve done so several times (with Obama, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Jared Lee Loughner, Anders Breivik, and American presidents in general), I’m always careful to acknowledge that it’s a speculative process. Until one knows (1) more about that person and (2) exactly which characters and passages he/she is responding to and how, one doesn’t have much to go on.
A reading experience can indeed tell us a lot about a person. Sometimes my students have major breakthroughs once they and I figure out the personal reasons that draw them to a certain work. But it can require sustained conversations to get to this understanding.
If the National Review writer were alone in his narrow view of novels, I wouldn’t even bother to address him. Unfortunately, there are far too many people in our society who see literature as little more than an extra. Thus my need to write today’s post.
I had forgotten, when I was reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom last month (see my post here), that it was last summer’s reading for Obama. I wonder if the book’s attack on mountain type removal (one of the most horrific instances of environmental devastation that I know) is related to the recent decision of the EPA to ban the practice. Perhaps not since the ban should be a no-brainer given that MTR pollutes all the surrounding ground water and produces sludge that can’t be disposed of. Nevertheless, it went through my mind that there might be a connection.
I certainly hope that the novel helped boost the president’s awareness of habitat destruction. More negatively for leftist activists, the novel also caricatures two anti-population explosion lefties in ways that might support Obama’s suspicion of ideologues on the left. Obama is more interested in practical problem solving than Quixotic stances. On the other hand, maybe he secretly enjoyed the scene where the father decides that he is done with playing nice with the enemy to further his own cause and commits career suicide by going on a rant. The character gets fired, but a video of his harangue goes viral and he develops a following and a new career.
On another subject, I’d be interested in hearing from high school teachers why dystopian novels like Brave New World are so often taught in high school. I remember being assigned Huxley’s work and also Orwell’s 1984, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Furthermore, while not set in the future, the always popular Lord of the Flies also plays with alternate realities. Is it because high school students are beginning to question the world they inhabit—a world that used to be defined by their parents—so exercises in shaking up the familiar take advantage of their questioning? Just wondering.
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