If Dante were writing the Inferno today hed probably make room down in hellsomewhere around circle number eight, bolgia sixfor people who judge others by the books they read.
As a penitent, though unregenerate, book snob youd find me down there gossiping with the Jovial Friars about other peoples reading lists and justifying my own choices to my fellow hypocrites. (Judge me not on the books I like , but rather on the ones I force myself to read . . . )
Such a mean-spirited vice has sufficient internal motivation and doesnt need prodding from outside. Yet every year the White House Communications Office leads us book-snob sinners into temptation by publishing the Presidents reading list. This year, theyve unveiled President Obamas vacation reading :
The Way Home by George Pelecanos, a crime thriller based in Washington;
Lush Life by Richard Price, a story of race and class set in New Yorks Lower East Side;
Tom Friedmans Hot, Flat, and Crowded , on the benefits to America of an environmental revolution;
John Adams by David McCullough;
Plainsong by Kent Haruf, a drama about the life of eight different characters living in a Colorado prairie community.
Judging the list probably reveals more about my own character than it does about Obama. Indeed, I dont think it hints at anything we dont already know about the man. The choicessolid, middlebrow fareare revealing only if you are under the impression that Obama is anything other than a solidly middlebrow President.
This is not to imply, of course, that Obama is dumb. He is obviously an intelligent manat least as bright as George W. Bush, though probably not as brainy as Bill Clinton. But he is not some sort of intellectual as many of his more vociferous supporters have attempted to portray him. The Obama is an Intellectual meme rings as false now, after seeing him in action, as the Bush is a Moron did during the previous administration.
To his credit, Obama has never pretended otherwise (at least that I have noticed). Whereas Al Gore attempted to use cultural markers to signal that he was serious and cerebralhe says his favorite novel is Stendhals The Red and the Black Obama is unafraid to be unoriginal: His favorite book, movie, and painter? Moby Dick , Casablanca , and Picasso. Solid, if uninspired, selections all. Unlike Gore, Obama isnt the kind of guy to talk about a book or movie you havent seena trait that makes him all the more approachable to middlebrow populists. If Bush was the kind of guy you wanted to hang out with at your local bar, Obama is the one you invite to your local chapter of Oprahs Book Club.
The choices for summer reading will neither intimidate the average reader, nor inspire awe at his intellectual prowess. This is reason enough to believe that he chose the books himself: No self-respecting image consultant would have chosen these books for him. A couple of contemporary novels is fineit is a vacation after allbut three is a bit much. And John Adams ? Is Obama the last college-educated American male not to have read McCulloughs tome?
And while it might have once been considered trendy to say you read Thomas Master of Mixed Metaphors Friedman, his anecdote-extrapolated trend-spotting is more fitting for the junior executive at Staples than for the Leader of the Free World. (Whats worse is that this is filling the solitary slot of semi-serious work of nonfiction that isnt a biography.)
Its a bit presumptiousthough in keeping with book-snobberyto propose an alternate selection to the list. But I think there is a book that Obama would find more useful and it even comes stamped with the approval of Oprah. I’m thinking, of course, of The Secret . According to the books website, The Secret reveals the natural law that is governing all lives. By applying the knowledge of this law, you can change every aspect of your life.
This isnt exactly the sort of reading in natural law that I would normally recommend, but with the troubles Obamas had selling his agenda to the American people, this might be the only book that could inspire in him hope that things will change.
In all seriousness, though, what books would you recommend the President read during his vacation? Assuming you had to stick to the same 3:2:1 ratio (3 novels, 1 biography, 1 policy-oriented nonfiction) what books would you slip into his travel bag?