The President and Fiction

I don’t normally engage with nonsense, but Tevi Troy’s insistence that the president’s reading list “constitute the oddest assortment of presidential reading material ever disclosed” because “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,” merits singling out for how uniquely grasping and bizarre it is, and how simultaneously snobbish and anti-intellectual. Troy writes:

Sure enough, the list has already prompted this accusation. As Reuters described his selections, “President Barack Obama, perhaps seeking a break from harsh reality after a tough summer battling the economy and Republicans in Congress, has picked a summer reading list that is long on fiction.”

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.” Room is another well-received novel, but it is about a mother and child trapped in an 11-by-11-foot room. This claustrophobic adventure does not strike me as the right choice for someone trying to escape the perception that he is trapped in a White House bubble.

The Grossman novel, which is about an Israeli woman who hikes to avoid hearing bad news about her soldier son, could create complications for Obama on the Israel front. Grossman is a well-known critic of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, so reading this novel will likely not assuage those concerned about Obama’s views on the Middle East.

First, using that Reuters quotation to argue that there’s some sort of consensus that the president’s reading means he’s out of touch is just a laughable reach. President Obama, and any person who holds that office, consumes vastly more non-fictional material than the average American, and doesn’t even have the benefit of reading it in engagingly-written histories or argumentative volumes. The idea that a novel or two, in the midst of all the briefings and reports, might somehow dilute his concentration is a direct heir to the idea that novels will rot delicate ladies’ brains, and deserves to be taken precisely as seriously.

Second, hating on mysteries? Mysteries and romances are some of the best-selling genres in the United States, and I was reading an academic paper yesterday that attributes the rise of chick lit aimed at African-American and Latino readers for rising reading rates among women in those demographics. It’s not remotely shameful to read in either genre (I have a shelf of Julia Quinn’s romance novels in my apartment, thank you very much), but it is pretty embarrassing to be such a horrible snob that you get in a snit when someone else reads in those genres.

Finally, it’s pretty depressing that Troy can look at a reading list that includes novels about the victims of horrible crimes, the parents of war victims, and people who give their lives to healing others, all experiences that the President hasn’t had directly but that have implications for his job, and see only Troy’s own paranoia about Obama’s mindset. People need to read fiction precisely as a tool to expand their moral imaginations, certainly a quality I think most of us would hope for in presidents, or columnists.