Monday, July 7, 2008

Obama's Inner Bookworm

Photo by Flickr user chotda, used under a Creative Commons license.

Do books matter? Does it matter what books our leaders care about? I think the answer to both these questions is a resounding yes, but then, I’m an incurable bookworm who's spent half her life inhabiting fictional worlds.

So I was fascinated by Laura Miller’s profile in today’s Salon of Barack Obama’s reading tastes. She cites Nietzsche as a major influence on him – which frankly I don’t see – and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom she portrays as a political chameleon. I'm not convinced that this sheds much light on Obama’s politics and character. I'm also not sure how she selected his non-fiction "favorites" nor whether they're really representative of his reading habits.

What intrigued me, though, was Obama’s relationship to fiction. Miller writes:
If Obama is elected, he'll be one of the most literary presidents in recent memory. Although his boyhood and youth in Hawaii and Indonesia were not especially bookish, Obama the reader blossomed as an undergraduate at Occidental College in California and, especially, during the two monkish years he spent finishing up his degree at Columbia University in New York. "I had tons of books," he told his biographer, David Mendell ("Obama: From Promise to Power"), about this time in his life. "I read everything. I think that was the period when I grew as much as I have ever grown intellectually. But it was a very internal growth." Even after he left New York to work as a community organizer in Chicago, Mendell reports, Obama lived so much like a retiring writer -- spending many hours holed up in a spartan apartment with volumes of "philosophy and literature" -- that some of his colleagues assumed he was gathering material for a novel.

A taste for serious fiction is rare in the American male these days, but Obama has it. According to several friends, he even tried his hand at writing short stories during those early years in Chicago, and he recalls priggishly scolding his half sister, Maya, while she was visiting him in New York, because she chose to watch TV instead of reading some novels he'd given her. Among the authors he favored during his years of intensive reading were Herman Melville, Toni Morrison and E.L. Doctorow (cited as his favorite before he switched to Shakespeare). He has also mentioned Philip Roth, whose struggles to shrug off the strictures of Jewish American community leaders must have resonated with the young activist.
Okay, I'm no huge fan of Philip Roth, and I'll confess I never finished Moby Dick. Weak, I know. But that's beside the point. I think the fact that he cares about serious fiction matters. Here's why.

Some months ago, back before the presidential herd had been thinned, USA Today asked the candidates a bunch of questions intended to reveal them as actual human beings. When asked what work of fiction they'd last read, most of the candidates either named something escapist (both Chris Dodd and Joe Biden mentioned John Grisham potboilers) or flip (Bill Richardson cited the administration's energy plan). Hillary Clinton inexplicably named a non-fiction book by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Barack Obama? He'd just read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This practically clinched my vote. I'd just finished it, myself, by a funny coincidence. But mostly, I loved Obama's response because it pandered to no one except maybe my personal demographic (surely less than 1% of the population!). Gilead is the story of a retired minister looking back on his life. It's a pleasurable read because the prose is so graceful. It's just a beautiful book that lovingly portrays ordinary events, shades of gray, tensions between faith and desires, family dynamics, and the often-cruel passage of time. While all of this adds up to a surprisingly compelling story, you couldn't rightly call it escapist. It's not flashy, it hasn't been made into a Hollywood movie, and it's not a household word that most voters will instantly relate to.

I'm not a snob. I've read a few Grishams in my time, too, along with an embarrassing number of romances - but as part of a varied literary diet. At the risk of sounding like the schoolmarm that I actually am, I think literary variety isn't just good for the brain; it nurtures the soul, too.

Obama's embrace of serious fiction - of books like Gilead - signals something far more important than the actual list of his favorite titles. It means he's not just tolerant of ambiguity, he actually enjoys it and appreciates it. His voracious reading habits matter, too, because they express an insatiable and wide-ranging curiosity.

These are both unlikely qualities in a politician. Lately, our leaders have insisted the world ought to be black and white. Obama refutes this not just through his very identity and family tree but also through his choice of books. And the fact that he chooses to read in the first place, rather than, say, clearing brush? Well, curiosity has been sorely lacking in the Oval Office over the past eight years. If curiosity and the life of the mind are elitist, then the world needs a lot more elitism.

I'm still deeply, deeply uneasy about Obama's tack to the center. But I hope that Obama's inner bookworm will protect him - and us - from the worst of what Adrianna Huffington rightly calls not realpolitik - but "realstupidpolitik."


Sally said...

I'm also a bit biased as a bookworm, but I think it's really important to know what people choose to read and what they enjoy.

Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I find that if you read a lot, you are also more likely to think critically and analytically about what you read and try to apply those themes to real life. I find that absolutely fascinating, and I think how people do that is often reflective of people's leadership styles, communication styles, etc.

You are what you read.

Sungold said...

Well, if we are what we read - I just finished "Bonk" by Mary Roach, so I guess that means sex and laughter matter to me.

Hmmm - that's not far off track.

I'm sure there are plenty of inveterate readers who don't show any mental benefit, but on average, at least, I think you're right that reading sharpens analytical skills.