Monday, August 31, 2009

Presidential Reading lists, do they matter? What do the presidents read?

On August 24th, Slate posted an article analyzing the list of books Obama would be bringing with him on his vacation. Read the article here:

As the article elucidates, the president’s reading list is at times used as a barometer of national feeling, or in the case of George W. as an attempt to prove intelligence, with mixed results (see Slate article). Obama’s list seems to be a nonstarter because it appears to be based solely on his reading interests at this point. Interestingly, his list includes David McCullough’s John Adams. I wonder if past presidents have read biographies of their predecessors. If so, what motivates these choices besides courting public opinion? Do they conceive of these biographies as historical road maps with warning signs imbedded in the text or more simply as a way to have a conversation through history with other members of the same ultra- exclusive club?

Since reading the Slate article, I’ve been thinking about what our presidents have chosen to read in their free time more broadly. Beyond just using books in our modern age as a public relations tool to connote everyman-ness or further some other agenda, what kinds of books have our presidents turned to in their personal lives away from public scrutiny? Have our presidents viewed their relationship with reading the same way that I have? As a vital relationship that can provide anything from comfort to education to just plain entertainment? With these questions in mind, I have tried to find out some of the books and authors our presidents have turned to while in office.

Abraham Lincoln was famous for being a self made man from America’s frontier. He was self- taught and spent little time if any in organized schools. Instead, Lincoln taught himself by reading whatever books he could get his hands on. He famously said of his love of reading, “My best friend is the man who’ll give me a book I ain’t read.” Of the many books he read in his lifetime, Lincoln’s favorites included Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet, along with the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Robert Burns and Lord Byron. One can imagine Lincoln entertaining those who worked in the telegraph office with monologues from one of Shakespeare’s dramas while awaiting word from the front during the war. Stories about families forced to turn on one another due to circumstance might have seemed appropriate during a war which often required the same of many American families living in border states.

Teddy Roosevelt was also a voracious reader who was an author in his own right. He authored his own history of the War of 1812 along with several books relating to his love of nature. Teddy has lately been remembered through books and articles for his legacy in furthering the national park system, and this love of nature and the environment was reflected in his reading choices.

Finally, a book that seems to connect many presidents over a large span of years has been the bible. Thomas Jefferson wrote his own version of the New Testament gospels that was in keeping with his interpretation of Christianity. In addition, Millard Fillmore (president from 1850-1853) learned to read by reading the family bible. To him, and countless others, the bible served not only as a religious text, but as an essential educational tool for those not lucky enough to attend formal schools. More than a hundred and fifty years later, George W. Bush would also list the bible as an important book in his life as it represents the foundation of his religious beliefs.

That said, does any of this matter? I love this kind of trivial information, but does the reading list of any president really hold any significance? I guess if we view the experience of reading as something of a transformative experience, as something that molds us, then we might take into account one’s personal library as an indication of how a person’s worldview has been shaped.

The question of what the presidents read is a favorite of mine, and hopefully I will get a chance to return to it in the future in greater detail.

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