The president’s reading. For fun & enlightenment. So shut up.

It’s late August. It’s the silly season. Maybe that’s why there have been so many stupid and snide articles about President Obama’s summer vacation reading list.

The Atlantic Wire rounds up some of the overheated commentary:

First, the reading choices themselves: “Saturday’s pool reports” revealed he purchased two books for himself: The Bayou Trilogy, a collection by Daniel Woodrell (author of Winter’s Bone), and Ward Just’s Rodin’s Debutante (set in Chicago). He added that to the books he carried with him, which include two novels and a history, according to the Los Angeles Times: Abraham Verghese’s bestseller Cutting for Stone, David Grossman’s story of a family in Israel, To the End of the Land, which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction, and 2010 NBCC nonfiction winner The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson.

First out of the gate with a sneer is Greta Van Susteren: “While the country’s economy gyrates with uncertainty, our leader is reading ‘fiction.'”

Then, in Salon, Robin Black laments, “President Obama: Why don’t you read more women?” Black complains that the books purchased this week are 70% male, and that the president’s reading list over the past three years skews even more strongly toward male authors.

Now the fact that the president of the United States apparently doesn’t read women writers is not the greatest crisis facing the arts, much less the nation — but it’s upsetting nevertheless. As I suspect Obama would agree, matters of prejudice are never entirely minor, even when their manifestations may seem relatively benign.

Ooh, burn. Burn with the heat of a thousand pissy glares. Her assertion that the president has a “prejudice” against women authors is audacious enough. But then she suggests that she can “help” cure the president of this moral failing — by sending him her own recently published short story collection. Luckily, my window was closed, or I might have flung the computer outside.

But the champion in the stupidity sweepstakes is the column by Tevi Troy at National Review: What’s Obama Reading?

[These books] may constitute the oddest assortment of presidential reading material ever disclosed, for a number of reasons. First, five of the six are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president, because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality.

Whunk. That sound is my head, hitting my desk, repeatedly. Or maybe it’s the sound of William F. Buckley spinning like a weedwacker in his grave. Honest to God, claiming that people who read fiction can be judged as losing contact with reality? That’s the level of intellectual argument that gets past today’s editors at National Review? Whunk.

Beyond the issue of fiction vs. nonfiction, there is also the question of genre. The Bayou Trilogy has received excellent reviews, but it is a mystery series. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, not every presidential reading selection is worth revealing to the public. Bill Clinton, for example, used to love mysteries, but he did not advertise the titles of what he once called “my little cheap thrills outlet.”

Them’s fightin’ words. Mr. Troy, you can call my books cheap genre trash all day long. You can tell me to hide them in a brown paper bag. You can tell me to hide my own self in a brown paper bag from the shame of writing cheap little thrills. But do not mess with Daniel Woodrell. The man’s a genius, and his books are beautiful, brilliant, heartbreaking and true.

This year’s list suggests that Obama needs to consider the messages sent by his reading more carefully. According to Mickey Kaus, the Obama list is “heavy on the wrenching stories of immigrant experiences, something the President already knows quite a bit about.”

Because… he moved from Honolulu to Chicago? That must be it. Holy cow.

[T]he annual book list should be a relatively easy way to make the president appear to be on top of things and in control. This year’s list, alas, reveals a president who appears to be neither.

Troy is “senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former senior White House aide.” The Hudson Institute is a think tank. And I’ve known people who were fellows there — people I respected and admired. But if this is the current quality of the analysis their fellows produce, Hudson should strike the word “think.” Because they’re just tanking. Sheesh.

(By the way, while I’ve been sitting here frothing and pounding at the keyboard and muttering darkly, the Husband has declared that all these commentators are asking the wrong question. They should be asking: Is the president reading books by left handers? The Husband also wonders whether President Reagan ever read a book during his tenure in office. He suspects that the Gipper read Mad magazine.)

Look here: the president went to a bookstore. While he was on vacation. He came out with an armful of books. The leader of the free world thinks that reading is cool. We should be celebrating that.

End rant.

22 responses to “The president’s reading. For fun & enlightenment. So shut up.

  1. Bloody hell. Some people clearly have too much time on their hands. If the commentators spent as much time reading (Fiction) as they did bitching, the world would be a much better place. Seriously.

    You go Pres Obama, read your butt off… and please do attempt to claim at least a little bit of normalcy (& enjoyment, dammit!) in your life.

  2. Madness. next time, Mr O, don’t tell them anything. Put all the “commentators” out of a job.

  3. That he *reads* is actually his greatest offense. But they don’t dare to be quite that brazen. (Actually, they’re probably just dying to use the word “uppity,” but realize that might be dangerous.) I’m about to start teaching Fahrenheit 451, and something I always remember from that book is that the anti-book sentiment is not something imposed from above but from the individual disgruntled wills of people who have each determined what *shouldn’t* be read. When I see someone saying that anyone should be on a particular intellectual diet, I just cringe and wonder what she’s thinking. So, presumably the pres should read 50% women and 50% men – and undoubtedly each of those 50% should themselves be divided equally among different ethnicities and nationalities.

    And imagination is a good thing, as long as – as with everything – it’s not used to excess.

    But thank you, Meg. If you hadn’t so eloquently and neatly pointed out and derided the asinine qualities of this response (which I suspect is, at least with the Van Susterens of the group, much more likely to be intentional political claptrap than it is an earnest complaint), my own collective whunks would have surpassed your own, and I would now be incapacitated – that is, ready to appear on Fox.

  4. I thought Clinton’s “little cheap thrill outlet” was Monica? I love that someone reads a variety of things, and I love when they step out of their comfort zone to try something new. Great rant.

    • That was his “little cheap thrill” blue *outfit*. Ba-dum-dum. I’d apologize, but we’re all fans of an author who features a beanie baby molesting monkey . . . (And here’s a terrifying spin-off for you to consider: The Adventures of Bill and Mr. Peebles – sort of like BJ and the Bear, but . . . I’ll leave it at that.)

  5. And we need to thank the President for actually walking into a bookstore and purchasing books thus supporting the industry and the economy. Every little bit helps!

  6. If that’s a euphemism …well that’s just “tmi”.

    Forgive me. It’s Friday. 😉

  7. Excellent post, Meg. Great (and funny!) replies, all! Nice capstone to my week. Extra “dessert” for everyone!!!

  8. Ahem. Guys.

    My books may provide cheap little thrills, but my blog comments here are not euphemistic.

  9. Sincere apologies for my sophomoric attempt at humor.

  10. Teacher of women

    We all might want to remember that for eight years we had a non reader non thinker for president. He left a giant mess that this president will continue to clean up for the rest of his time in the White House. President Obama both reads and thinks. The only book I am sure I will never read is Robin Black’s book of short stories. From her whiny column, it is made quite clear that she is self absorbed and that she is the sort that gives feminism a very bad name. Now I am glad the president reads and reads books that the rest of us should be reading. Perhaps he just does not read bad women writers. He certainly reads Doris Kearns Goodwin. I don’t recommend “Cutting for Stone”, but President Obama might love it. He is certainly capable of deciding for himself. We know Greta is not capable of such choice. Silly people.

  11. Love this post! I’m so tired of hearing complaints that the President is TAKING a vacation (he’s taken half as many as his predecessor at this point in his term), and now he can’t read what he wants while he’s ON vacation? I thought that was the definition of a vacation–you get to do what you want, which apparently is READING, for our President. So YAY! Oh, and we apparently have a member of a think tank who’s a birther? Meg, tanking doesn’t begin to describe it.

  12. We have a President who proudly reads-on vacation, encourages his children to read and people are complaining? What a serious disconnect! He’s doing exactly what educators encourage parents to do, show your children that books are important and do that by reading yourself. He is a shining example for parents everywhere who want their kids to grow up loving books leading by example. And he supports Indie bookstores-what more could you ask for!!

  13. Years ago the Readers Digest apparently had an ad campaign showing an executive saying: “Get me a man who reads!” I’m still inclined to use that lens when I’m deciding who to do business with. I appreciate a leader who buys books and buys them from an actual book store, bless him.
    (Some female wag changed the Readers Digest tag line to:
    “Get me a man! Who reads?”)

  14. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everybody.

  15. Late on this post — busy teaching the next generation how to read! The disconnect between the brain-power and intellectual curiosity of this president (however one feels about his leadership flaws) and the idiocy of his critics is staggering.

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