What does one say when confronted with a president who reads books while he’s on vacation? Surely something like “Why must you, President Smarty Pants, follow your interests when the time comes to select reading material? Why can’t you read something I would like to read? Why aren’t you me? After all, I am secretly a very important man/woman.” At least that’s what we should think, according to various opinion pieces recently posted on the wretched Internet.
The first protest against the president’s oppressive reading list was Tevi Troy’s principled howl in the National Review:
[Obama's book selection] 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.
Reading this, one gets the terrible feeling not only that Mr. Troy has never read any novels ever, but also that he might not know what a novel is. Your reviewer won’t bore you with a lecture about how a good novel can expand the mind in all sorts of ways. One would, however, like to point out that you can actually learn things — in a literal picking-up-information sort of way — from novels. In the 19th century, the reading public learned about the lives of Cossacks from Tolstoy, the English legal system (and countless other things) from Dickens, the Parisian criminal underworld and its mirror in the Paris police from Balzac, and on and on and on. Certainly, there’s more to these writers than News You Can Use, but to argue that reading fiction makes one “out of touch with reality” is just bizarre.
More bizarre might be Troy’s notion that all non-fiction is necessarily in touch with reality. Which brings us to this:
Obama, like other Democratic presidents, has tended to read mainly liberal books, although he could stand to gain some insight from conservative ones. There could be many reasons for his selection bias, but buying his books at the “legendary” Bunch of Grapes probably is not helping matters. While I have never had the pleasure of shopping there, the store’s website highlights a variety of its offerings, with nary a conservative work. There may be some on the shelves there somewhere, but they are probably not staring Obama in the face when he visits the store.
According to the results of my completely unscientific survey of Bunch of Grapes’s website, Laura Ingraham’s Of Thee I Zing, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, and Mark Steyn’s After America were listed as available for online ordering.
Most bizarre of all is the idea that novels, or any kind of book other than a straightforward political tract, can be divided into “liberal books” and “conservative books.” The idea that there are conservative novels, conservative movies, and conservative rock songs seems to be obsession at National Review (which once, long ago and perhaps in an alternate universe, employed Guy Davenport to write book reviews). Your reviewer wonders why they haven’t put together a slide show of “conservative paintings” yet. But what, in a world of nudes and blurry weirdness and erotic Jesus’s, could possibly make the cut? Oh wait…yeah.
The only author on Obama’s reading list with whom your reviewer was somewhat familiar was Israeli novelist David Grossman. Needless to say, Grossman is guilty of wrongthink on settlements in the West Bank and East Jersualem, so off with his head.
Short-story writer Robin Black, writing in liberal Salon, thought Troy’s complaints were just ridiculous. The real horror, Black said, is that Obama doesn’t read enough women authors:
Now the fact that the president of the United States apparently doesn’t read women writers is not the greatest crisis facing the arts, much less the nation — but it’s upsetting nevertheless.
Is it? Is it really? She goes on:
It is a well-known fact among those of us to whom this matters that while women read books written by men, men do not tend to reciprocate. The reasons for this imbalance are the subject of much speculation and little conclusion, but, simple as this may sound, it looks an awful lot to me like we think they are more interesting than they think we may turn out to be. And I very much doubt that’s a message Mr. Obama means to endorse — especially as a father of daughters who might enjoy and even be inspired by seeing their father cart around a book emblazoned with a woman’s name writ large.
Ms. Black is missing the real scandal here, namely that Obama doesn’t read enough amputee Chicano lesbian composers of villanelles. Perhaps we should just make a list of acceptable books for every president to read, or even better an Index of Forbidden Books. And a quota system that corresponds to the American population, so that instead of reading whatever they want to read, each president should make 63% of their reading material books by whites, etc.
Meanwhile the Jewish Week picked up on Troy’s disapproval of David Grossman. Eric Herschthal thinks Grossman is a fine literary artist, but “given the politics of the general subject I would have avoided it. Anyway, the mind of an Israeli novelist is markedly different from a general Jewish American one.”
It’s always too much trouble to read foreigners.
Anyway. What does Obama’s reading list tell us? We have no idea, but one wonders if people who actually care about such things shouldn’t be locked up in an asylum emblazoned with the words BEDLAM FOR MASTER BORES writ large.