Reading a President's Reading List

Each August, as Americans traipse off to the beach bearing bottles of suntan lotion and piles of towels, many bring along some casual “beach reading.”

In staid Washington, where even fun can be rather serious, a different sort of reading list makes the rounds. Everyone wants to know what words may influence the leader of the free world, so this year, as in seasons past, the media have eagerly dug into President Obama’s own three-book list, eager to uncover any treasures of thought in the summer sand. They haven’t found much to go on.

For prophetically inclined politicos, scrutinizing his choices for any hints of policy, Obama’s book-leaves have always been a tad difficult to read. Rather than embarking on an ambitious list of biographies or histories on his vacation, Obama instead picked up three works of fiction in a Martha’s Vineyard bookstore, along with some classics for his kids.

As an augur of future policies, his selections are rather opaque: Is he possibly concerned about dysfunction in American families (Harding’s Tinkers)? Contemplating the death tax (Leithauser’s A Few Corrections)? Snubbing the Bush-Cheney Administrations (Franzen’s Freedom)?

August 2009 was equally unilluminating. Aside from another novel (Plainsong) and the predictable summer fare (a detective thriller), Obama’s only book of any real note was Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded. All indications to the contrary, Hot, Flat, and Crowded isn’t a polemic on visiting the Jersey Shore; it’s a call to environmental revolution. But there were no portents here; we can’t even blame Friedman for the green-jobs debacle, since Obama was already promoting it in 2008.

Cartoon courtesy of Brett Noel

It’s questionable what, if anything, parsing these summer reads can tell us. The annual vacation list is a bit of a Rorschach test—a lot of ink upon which any view can be projected. A President’s choices are analyzed and decoded with the hair-splitting detail of The New York Times Book Review, but to little effect.

What to make, for instance, of the fact that Presidents Obama and George W. Bush have fallen under some of the same literary influences? They share common favorites, among them Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals on the Lincoln cabinet, the Bible, Shakespeare, and books by David Halberstam (famous for his histories of the Korea and Vietnam conflicts).

Like Kennedy and his Ian Fleming novels before them, both men also enjoy crime thrillers, with Obama favoring George Pelecanos and Bush turning to Daniel Silva and Secret Service favorite Vince Flynn.

But President Obama, unlike Bush, gets plenty of credit for being “caught reading,” as the popular ads have it, while Bush’s choices have rated little more than contempt. Despite the fact that Bush is an avid reader, devouring 95 books in 2006 alone, Obama is hailed as the hero of the literati.

Perhaps no list, however long, can convince liberals that anyone with whom they disagree is educated, as the educated classes are defined by agreement. When Bush, frequently accused of favoring Americans in his foreign policy (a common flaw among the Republicans), read outside the American oeuvre, he was roundly snubbed. Slate columnist John Dickerson sneered upon hearing that Bush was reading Nobel Prize-winning author Albert Camus, “George Bush reading a French Existentialist is like Obama reading a Cabela’s catalog.”

The New Yorker offered a job evaluation in their response, complaining, oddly for a magazine devoted to literature, that reading Camus was a waste of presidential time—shouldn’t he be attending to real world problems? Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen found the idea of a Yale and Harvard alum reading French Existentialism funny: “Maybe this is what happens when you have to give up jogging.” These same voices of complaint were silent when Obama embarked on three novels this summer, or was seen toting a copy of The Post-American World during the 2008 campaign.

Even authors profiting from presidential attention snubbed book-worm Bush. When the President read Salt: A World History, an account of a commodity once as precious as oil, it momentarily slipped author Mark Kurlansky’s mind that the most influential man in the world was considering his ideas. He told The New York Times, “My first reaction was, ‘Oh, he reads books?'”

For Bush, there were no cheers for reading (and thus promoting) great histories or literature, no acknowledgement by his critics that great writing may enrich our understanding of our lives and our world.

Ultimately, such prejudiced critiques of presidential reading miss the point. The most intriguing aspect of the summer list is not what it indicates about any particular American President—after all, there’s no guarantee he’ll even get through those hundreds of pages while on “vacation” and running the free world—but about America. A leader who publicly defines him or herself through books reflects the intrinsically American message that literacy is important, and that reading matters.

Most of our Presidents have been great readers. Thomas Jefferson collected enough books to start the Library of Congress, Teddy Roosevelt famously read a book each day before breakfast, and Abe Lincoln poured over lessons in his precious volumes by candlelight. It is perhaps more important that our Presidents read publicly, than any list of what they’re reading. We are a nation of learners and strivers, a land with equal opportunity for those who work hard, study hard, and read.