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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Presidents and the classics

The recent spate of articles over President Obama’s summer reading prompts an inquiry into how well acquainted our presidents have been with classic American literature.

In 2009 the McNally Jackson bookstore in New York organized a display of books Barack Obama read in his twenties. The Curious Autodidact offers the complete list of 54 books, in which we find three books by Philip Roth, two each by James Baldwin and Herman Melville, and works by W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and Richard Wright, plus The Collected Writings of Thomas Jefferson and The Federalist Papers.

A recent post at Robin Bates's blog, On Better Living Through Beowulf, plumbs this list for meaning, wondering “what Obama would see in the ‘I’d prefer not to’ Bartleby” but thinking that in Benito Cereno he might see slaves “doing a complicated dance to present an acceptable face to the outside world.” Bates wonders, “Is Obama more a Jeffersonian or a Hamiltonian, a populist or a federalist? I see strains of both in his thinking.” And, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Jon Meacham apparently received the same list of Obama’s favorites via email. Meacham discerned the same “tragic sensibility” in both Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain because each listed For Whom the Bell Tolls among their favorite books: “They embrace hope but recognize the reality that life is unlikely to conform to our wishes.”

The most extensive citation of former president George W. Bush’s reading tastes appeared in Karl Rove’s famous column in The Wall Street Journal, “Bush Is a Book Lover,” in which Rove recounted the annual reading competition he had with the president. His much touted reading of Albert Camus’s The Stranger aside, Bush favored biographies and histories:
His reading [in 2008] included a heavy dose of history—including David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter, Rick Atkinson's Day of Battle, Hugh Thomas's Spanish Civil War, Stephen W. Sears's Gettysburg and David King's Vienna 1814. There's also plenty of biography—including U. S. Grant's Personal Memoirs; Jon Meacham's American Lion; James M. McPherson's Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief and Jacobo Timerman's Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.
The Clinton Library has posted a list of some of former president William Clinton’s 21 favorite books. In addition to histories and biographies, there are several American classics: The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. It seems odd to find William Faulkner missing from this list since Gabriel Garcia Marquez posted a memorable account of a dinner he and Carlos Fuentes had with Clinton in 1995. When the conversation turned to favorite books:
Clinton said his was the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Carlos Fuentes stuck loyally to Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner's stellar novel, no question, although others would choose Light in August for purely personal reasons. Clinton, in homage to Faulkner, got to his feet and, pacing around the table, recited from memory Benji's monologue, the most thrilling passage, and perhaps the most hermetic, from The Sound and the Fury.
Jennifer Schuessler recently asked, “Are You Reading What He’s Reading?” in The New York Times. Her assessment of President Obama’s reading tastes led her back to Theodore Roosevelt, who, if not our best-read president, was certainly the only one to confess that “now and then one’s soul thirsts for laughter,” as he does in A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open:
Now and then one’s soul thirsts for laughter.... Mark Twain at his best stands a little apart, almost as much so as Joel Chandler Harris. Oliver Wendell Holmes, of course, is the laughing philosopher, the humorist at his highest, even if we use the word “humor” only in its most modern and narrow sense.... If any man feels too gloomy about the degeneracy of our people from the standards of their forefathers, let him read Martin Chuzzlewit; it will be consoling.
Related LOA works: William Faulkner: Complete Novels; Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters

1 comment:

  1. Looking for a list of best books on the Battle of Tours, Ottoman Empire at the Gates of Vienna and any books where Western Man first encounters non-Western Culture or nations.


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