Does it make sense for the president of the United States to carve time out of his busy schedule to read novels? And what message does Barack Obama send to the world when four of the five books on his well-publicized summer reading list turn out to be works of fiction?
To be fair, none of these titles count as lightweight, beach-reading diversions. Unlike President Kennedy, whose passionate embrace of James Bond novels (did he consider 007 an erotic role model?) helped make Ian Fleming an international sensation, President Obama demonstrates no devotion to espionage thrillers—or to sword-and-sorcery epics, science fiction, or vampire romance, for that matter. (The president’s potential rival Mitt Romney recently confessed an altogether unexpected enthusiasm for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, giving new ammunition to those critics who discern something otherworldly, even eerie, in the former governor’s unflappable self-assurance.)
In his book choices, Obama turned exclusively to critically acclaimed bestsellers with no discernible connection to politics or the presidency: The Bayou Trilogy features three different “country noir” crime stories by Winter’s Bone author Daniel Woodrell; Rodin’s Debutante by Ward Just is a sweeping coming-of-age saga centered on an Illinois boarding school in the postwar era; Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese delivers an exotic tale set in Ethiopia about twin boys born to a glamorous Indian nun; and To the End of the Land offers an eloquent meditation on war, loss, and family ties by Israeli peace advocate David Grossman.
Each of the chosen tomes that the president picked up at the popular Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard combined bestseller status with overwhelming critical acclaim, but they also represented a break with the past in terms of reading habits by the commander in chief. Obama himself had previously announced his commitment to titles like Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt or Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World—more standard fare for any working politician, and especially for a nonfiction author who made his personal fortune through works of autobiography and political commentary.
George W. Bush boasted an almost exclusive focus on works of history and biography, devoting the summer of 2006 (the White House announced) to reading life stories of Lincoln, Mao, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, Babe Ruth, and Roberto Clemente—as well as heady accounts on the position of Muslim women and major diseases (polio and influenza) that exerted a profound impact on the United States. His only chosen work of fiction, the existentialist Camus classic The Stranger, might have been part of an effort to repair tattered relations with France, or to make up for assignments he blithely ignored during prep school at Andover. In any event, Bush took his summer reading seriously: during an off-the-record meeting in the Oval Office in 2006, I was present when he spoke knowledgeably and passionately about Lincoln’s reliance in even the darkest days of the Civil War on unwavering support from Union soldiers and Christian clergy, and expressed the hope that he could sustain a similar connection with the same forces in our society.
In a fascinating Washington Post piece, Tevi Troy of the Hudson Institute notes that leading GOP candidates express a similar preference for meaty nonfiction in their literary explorations. Michele Bachmann, for instance, insists that “When I go on vacation and I lay [sic] on the beach, I bring Von Mises.”
In part, she emphasizes her devotion to the Austrian School economist to convey the impression that she’s no ditzy airhead, just as Obama may focus on emotionally charged works of fiction to counter the suggestion that he’s a bloodless, one-dimensional wonk or drone.
But if Obama successfully devours the four announced novels (amid his inevitable games of golf and beach visits and ice-cream runs with his girls), then that raises a serious question for the rest of us: if the president of the United States manages time for fiction, why can’t we?
I read almost constantly, carrying multiple bags of newspapers, magazines, think-tank reports, and assorted clippings and printouts onto airplanes, into dentist offices, to screenings, and into every room of the house. Sure, I go through numerous books as well—but they’re always nonfiction volumes by authors I will interview on the air, never novels for relaxation.
Most people I know in politics or journalism work desperately to cope with the molten-lava flow of new information that threatens each day to bury us alive. Shouldn’t the president feel that pressure more intensely than anyone else, given the sheer volume of facts and opinion he needs to digest to do his job?
Perhaps Obama’s novelistic inclinations reflect the conviction, cited by his admiring aides, that he’s always the smartest one in any room he graces with his presence. Since he’s already so well prepared, so supremely conversant with even the most complicated and arcane issues, why wouldn’t he relax with stories about crime-fighting detectives in Louisiana or grieving, war-weary families in Israel?
The interest in fiction may also reassure the aesthetically inclined among his supporters that even in a period of tight budgets for arts organizations, the president recognizes the importance of creative imagination. Let Bush plod through his weighty biographies or watch his football games; Barack Obama seconds the sentiment of D. H. Lawrence that “the novel is the one bright book of life.”
In fact, after his retirement in 2017 (or, better yet, 2013), we may look to this most unusual president to shun the standard doorstop of a memoir and to instead craft a fictional epic that traces the fate of one sprawling, brawling family from the verdant hills of Kenya to the sunset beaches of Hawaii, to the mean streets of Chicago, to the corridors of power in the nation’s capital, and finally to the sand dunes and mansions of Martha’s Vineyard, where artistic fulfillment arrives at last in a beach bag stuffed with novels.