Thursday, September 1, 2011

What a President Reads

What A President Reads

Here in the states it has become a tradition of sorts to publish the list of books our President is planning to read on his summer holiday. This year I was pleased to see President Obama bringing along Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese, one of the best books I read last year, and a book I have mulled over many times since. Also included in the President’s book bag was To the End of the Land by David Grossman and The Warmth of Other Suns, a non-fiction work by Isabel Wilkerson. During his first day on Martha’s Vineyard, he stopped off at the Bunch of Grapes bookshop with his two daughters and increased his reading list by purchasing Emma Donoghue’s award winning book, Room, as well as a trilogy by the excellent writer, Daniel Woodrell.

Of course, as to be expected, when these titles were made public some in the press found the President’s book list worthy of strident, and somewhat amusing, criticism. He was taken to task by writer Robin Black for not reading enough women authors. Then, for the National Review, writer Tevi Troy composed a snarky little opinion piece that labeled the President’s list, as well as the Vineyard bookshop he patronized, as “liberal” and included this asinine sentence about the President’s choices:
“ First, five of the six are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president," he explains, "because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality."

Now, I recognize that there are those determined to deride President Obama on anything and everything possible, and while it would be quite entertaining to take on Mr. Tevi’s article point by irksome point, I’ll leave all that to others. You can read the entire article here and make your own judgments about the validity of his criticism. However, I am prepared to denounce his foolish assertion that to read fiction carries the implication that one is “out of touch with reality”.
To Kill a Mockingbird, The Road, A Tale of Two Cities.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Grapes of Wrath.
Readers of these books, out of touch with reality?

Reading fiction, great fiction, requires not only a curious mind, but an open one as well. There is truth to be found in fiction, often inarticulate truth that hides between the lines of simple sentences, waiting to be discovered by a discerning and questioning eye. Fiction allows one to place oneself in the skin of others. It can create an empathy for our shared humanity that continues to unfold for the reader long after the books have closed.

Speaking for myself, I want my President to read fiction. I want his reading list to be deep and far-reaching. I want him to imagine what it’s like to walk around the world in the shoes of the poor and illiterate as well as the educated and powerful.
I want him to understand what motivated Atticus Finch to sit all night outside the jail cell of Tom Robinson.
I want him to consider both the desperation of Tom Joad and the idealism of Don Quixote.
I want him to know what made Septimus Warren Smith throw himself out that window in London and why Shylock demanded his pound of flesh.
I want him to contemplate what the green light meant to Jay Gatsby.
And in the case of one of President Obama’s choices for this year’s holiday, I want him reading To The End of the Land, to encounter a mother who sets off on a walk across the country of Israel while her son is called up for a 28 day military exercise just because she cannot bear being home if and when the authorities try to find her should he perish in combat. Yes, I want him to read that book.

If Mr. Tevi finds readers of fiction to be out of touch with reality, I can only shudder to think how he views those of us who read poetry.
But I’ll leave that to another day.

Fiction reveals truth reality obscures”.
Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. Oh my - ALL of what you say... and I do think that the president is ALLOWED to be "out of touch with reality" if he choses during his VACATION - doesn't he deserve that? However, I also don't think that reading novels makes him so... what craziness. Wonder what they would say if he decided to purchase a book on crop circles or, worse yet, ART! Yikes! Hey, and something novel (no pun intended!) maybe the president deserves to have a PRIVATE reading list!

  2. It might be revealing (and scary)to see what his putative opponents are reading!

    Aloha from Waikiki;

    Comfort Spiral
    > < } } ( ° >


    < ° ) } } > <

  3. Well done, Pamela, well done!

    I like knowing that the president reads and has a varied choice of fiction, that he brought his daughters to purchase books, that he visited an independent book dealer . . . I could go on, but, won't.

    I knew someone whose teenage son ran away from home. She got up each day and walked and walked and walked until her son finally called home. To the End of the Land is not so far fetched, especially involving military action.

    Thank you for another civil and thought provoking essay.

  4. The colossal stupidity of Mr. Tevi's statement is beyond understanding. As you pointed out with your list of just a few of the masterful works of fiction, he is a fool.

    Fiction has given me joy, it has taught me all manner of things, and it has challenged my beliefs for my whole life. Not in touch with reality?? It is Mr. Tevi who is not in touch with reality! If he were, he would cheer that the President is willing to open his mind and heart to fiction which shows us all how to be the best we can be.

    Besides, the man is on VACATION!! A vacation he has earned by virtue of the fact that he has THE most important and difficult job in the world!! To my mind, if Mr. Obama wants to read comic books while he is on vacation, I think he has earned the right!

    "Out of touch with reality"? Good God!

  5. An ambitious list for a week's vacation. I don't know how he has the time to read one book with everything else he's still expected to stay on top of. That National Review piece just makes me want to scream. I feel the same when my non-reading friends say they don't like to read fiction because it's not reality. Thanks for putting the rebuttal so well.

  6. Your post filled my heart with joy. Oh, Pamela, how true that fiction illuminates reality, creates and allows empathy. Without fiction, where would we be, stuck with the newspapers, news reporters, news 'distorters', historians who choose the facts we ought to notice, and pundits to mediate our minds. I appreciate the list for my own greedy purpose too. I'm off to the library to request a few good reads.

  7. Can you hear me clapping? Well said, Pamela!
    Jeanne xxx

  8. I'm really sick and tired of these pseudo-intellectuals piling onto President Obama. It really doesn't matter what the President does, these attention-starved media junkies find fault. I thought the President's list was fantastic. What's wrong with reading fiction? Truth be told, a lot of what I learned about life came from fiction.

    Thank you, thank you for your passionate words about how fiction can deepen one's awareness.

  9. Exactly my thoughts after reading your post!
    I find American media so often obnoxious and judgmental and unfortunately their opinions form
    the unquestioned opinions of many, following blindly...

    The President has a private life as well and what he chooses to read in his past time should be for his pleasure and nobody's business. He does enough work for the greater good, there is surely a need for relaxing. Given the list I applaud him!
    We might get informed but to judge him by the covers so to speak is beyond my understanding.

  10. Pamela, I totally agree with you. However, it would have been much more wonderful to see President Obama walk into the local public library in Nantucket (should there be one.... and I'm assuming there is one) and simply "borrowed" a great piece of literature fiction/nonfiction, poetry. Then, once read, he would return the books so that others would have the great priviledge of doing the same. Now that would have been a powerful message and great example for not only supporting the arts (literature) but also public institutions accessable to all of us (poor, middle class, rich).

  11. Mr Tevi serves as a reminder of how easy it is for those with no responsibility to criticise .

  12. Poor guy can't do right for doing wrong!

  13. Really everyone needs a respite from the reality surrounding us, especially a person in a position of such significance.

    I am reading The Room and can hardly put it down to get to sleep!

    Come and join my new fashion Giveaway from Fresh Produce!

    Art by Karena

  14. Amen to every word you wrote, Pamela! The last book you noted reminds me of the Tillerman series by Cynthia Voigt in which a mother throws out her phone after hearing the news that her son had died in Vietnam.

  15. Oh, and I meant to say that I've read that Theodore Roosevelt read a book a day. What a guy!

  16. Sometimes people say the silliest things Pamela, don't they? I think that fiction and poetry have more to say about the world than any non fiction book, which - after all - is usually one person's view and often a one-sided view at that.

  17. Well written Pamela - could you imagine a world without fiction?! AARGH!

  18. Absolutely wonderful post, Pamela! What a year we are in for while the ilk of Mr. Tevi try to reduce this great president's stature and integrity as a man by chiding him on everything he does, whatever it is..I dare say, they are jealous of him...

  19. Brava, Pamela! Very well said. This post resonates with me as both a reader and a writer of fiction. I believe that fiction allows an author to get closer to the truth because a novelist has only to be true to her characters. There are no real people to offend or to flatter. Emotional honesty is what counts. I’m thrilled that our president reads novels and visits independent bookstores with his daughters. He’s got my vote.

  20. Holly Cow! why don't they leave
    Him alone. This country needs to dissolve both parties. It is sick we pay these nuts in office to sling mud back and forth. Make them get back to work or get out.
    I am happy to know he is taking a break, away from the obstinate
    House of Reps. Who do not represent me.

  21. Beautifully said, Pamela. I agree with everything you wrote. I continue to learn so much from fiction. By the way, both David Grossman and Isabel Wilkerson spoke at the Sun valley Writers' Conference this year and I was so happy to hear that President Obama was reading their books. Beautiful, beautiful post!

  22. Bravo, Pamela. I certainly couldn't have said it better myself...leave it to you to put together the best words...and I wish the President could have a private reading list like the rest of us can. I don't know how he does it all!

  23. The fact that most of his summer reading choices are novels just underscores, to me, what an amazingly well rounded & creative individual your President is ... and how fortunate you are to have someone like him at the helm.

    Most of my American political news/commentary comes from my beloved team roast n' toast Bill, Stephen & Jon (Maher, Colbert & Stewart). A fantastic post Pamela & I especially love the closing quotation.

    ps. Please meet Sam(uel) or nick named "hunred lbs" we don't think he's an official Leonburger just a slightly smaller reasonable facsimile. We adopted him last Halloween kisses to E & A and to you too of course xo Susan & les Gang

  24. Pamela, Bravo!
    I think Obama can read whatever he likes and am so fed up with the carping right complaining AUTOMATICALLY about anything and everything he does, poor chap.
    His book list sounds really most interesting and more varied than mine lately.
    I love entering new worlds through fiction and am never so happy as when I have a parallel life going in a book.
    I rather look forward to fall and hibernating with some 'good reads'.
    Buster says hi to Edward and Apple.

  25. Excellent post..,sanity prevails or The Dude Abides:Bravo.

    If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves.... A book must be like ... an ice-axe to break the sea from inside us.

    Franz Kafka, “Letter to Oskar Pollak”, November 8, 1903; cited from Max Brod (ed.) Briefe, 190 (1903

  26. Well said, Pamela. I wholeheartedly agree with you! My personal opinion is that authors who criticize the reading choices of others, are envious that their own books haven't been selected.

  27. The criticism surely says more about the critics than the book choices. How blessed you are to have a president who reads - who encourages others to read by his example. Thank goodness he is not so one dimensional as to read only non-fiction.

  28. Oh my goodness, to be so self-righteous as to think they have the right to dictate or comment on another person's reading! If we only read what we were expected to read then we would never have progresses beyond the Bible.
    Poor Mr President. I do wish he has a secret reading list not just the one put together by the PR people!

  29. If I was president I'd chill out on holiday and wouldn't read anything or watch anything. I suppose that's just one of the reasons why I'm NOT the President!

  30. gentleman that angus is... he perhaps said it best above. i, on the other hand, am not a gentleman and i think mr tevi should shut his mouth and crawl back under his rock.
    great post! ditto to all you said so well.
    tammy j
    ps... one could say, at least mr tevi, this president does read!

  31. It should be important that we know what's the President is reading now so that we will know his state of mind.

    N. Murano
    writer @ Italian Lamps

  32. How I agree with you. The summer reading of our politicians was published, and the reading of our former Prime Minister, the one who ruled by flying into volcanic rages, was depressing in the extreme.


I love to read your comments! Each and every one! Though I'm always reading your comments, I may not respond in the comment section. If you want to write me directly, you may do so at Thank you for reading!