In a New York Times article by Michiko Kakutani released this morning, President Obama reveals how books have sustained and inspired him throughout his presidency—a job and office that he admitted can be extremely isolating during times of stressful decision-making…
“…[I]n a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions—books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiriation, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.
“‘At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,’ he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally ‘slow down get perspective’ and ‘the ability to get in someone’s else’s shoes.’ These two things, he added, ‘have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”
A well-written piece, it can’t be helped thinking that the author might have been struggling with her own fears and sense of unreality at the incoming presidential administration. I would present the idea that there are innumerable ways to distinguish the differences between the outgoing and the incoming presidents, but Kakutani has made her comparative distinctions through the idea of books and reading. She’s not the first person to do so, with this or other presidencies. Her invocation of social justice leaders and how their choice of words has defined American progress is not only beautiful, but subtlely highlights the difference between President Obama and the man who will replace him in just a few days:
“…[T]here is a clear, shining line connecting [President] Lincoln and [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], and President Obama. In speeches like the ones delivered in Charleston and Selma, he has followed in their footsteps, putting his mastery of language in the service of a sweeping historical vision, which, like theirs, situates our current struggles with race and injustice in a historical continuum that traces how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. It’s a vision of America as an unfinished project—a continuing, more-than –two-century journey to make the promises of the Declaration of Independence real for everyone—rooted both in Scripture and the possibility of redemption, and a more existential belief that we can continually remake ourselves. And it’s a vision shared by the civil rights movement, which overcame obstacle after obstacle, and persevered in the face of daunting odds.”
Reading, writing, and eloquence are talents that have been used to distinguish great men through our American history. And there are sore spots. Read this list of the favorite books of the Presidents of the United States of America and you’ll see a great divide. Several presidents favored their own autobiographies or biographies of themselves written by friends. Some presidents’ reading lists were so dubiously negligible that no reading list can be determined.
One can’t help but wonder what Donald Trump’s book list will include when this list is updated in years to come. Sensationalism and fake news aside, Vanity Fair magazine reported during the election campaign that Trump’s former wife Ivana had indicated that Trump keeps a gifted copy of Hitler’s speeches, My New Order, in his bedside table. Comedian Samantha Bee has conjectured that Trump doesn’t know how to read at all. (This seems unlikely considering Trump’s use of the social media platform Twitter…oh wait, Trump himself explained that away on CNN once…watch the video.)
Perhaps knowing that Trump hasn’t read a book in the last twenty years puts me in a biased category…as someone for whom words and sentences and books and literature are so grossly important. …But perhaps, equally so, does it matter to a large faction of American citizens who are post-literate…or literate averse…or who consider any form of literacy to be elitist. …Sigh. It’s sad to me that reading, literature, and books are yet another factor that segregates me from some of my neighbors, and that it has become such a civilly divisive subject of contention…especially when I have always believed it is one of the things that has the potential to save us… not unlike Kautami suggests in another passage of her article:
“In today’s polarized environment, where the internet has let people increasingly retreat to their own silos (talking only to like-minded folks, who amplify their certainties and biases), the president sees novels and other art (like the musical ‘Hamilton’) as providing a kind of bridge that might span usual divides and ‘a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day.’”
Well, at the risk of feeling like the act of recommending something to read might be taken as offensive… Read the whole New York Times article here…