Obama: A warrior-hearted black man running for president in a country that bends over backward to deny its white supremacist tendencies? Now here’s a cat who truly is an optimist, who really believes. For the honorable senator I recommend Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony,” a) because it’s a perfect novel about our country and b) because “Ceremony” is all about love and hope, and Senator Obama is going to need a ton of both to get through this one with his warrior-heart intact.
I have met all three of the presidential candidates, two quite briefly, but I know that each exhibits an acute literary sensibility as measured by the standard that most authors secretly employ: they are familiar with my work. (At least they said they were — they are politicians after all.)
More seriously, I would recommend the same three books to each. The first is “Anna Karenina,” the fullest rendering I know of the complexity of human motivation and thus a precious warning against seeing the world as full of villains.
The second is any book about the Swedish warship Vasa. Completed in 1628, the Vasa was envisioned by King Gustavus Adolphus as the most formidable military vessel in history. It sank after sailing less than a mile, drowning dozens of crew members. Some said that many of the ship’s designers, and a number of royal counselors, were aware that the vessel was unstable, but all were terrified of breaking the news to the king.
Finally, I would recommend reading about the underappreciated presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower was a far more fluent writer than his stumbling performances behind a microphone suggested, so I would choose his memoir, “Mandate for Change.” Ike was the last nonpolitician elected president, and his moderate vision of American government and the restrained use of American power provide potent lessons in how to truly govern from the center.
Forget the personality claptrap: our next president will need to know how to restructure the carbon-based economy, pronto. I assume all the candidates have read “An Inconvenient Truth,” by Al Gore, so they understand that anything they promise will have to be delivered without cheap fossil fuels. For further reading, Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy” and Frances Moore Lappé’s “Getting a Grip” offer new definitions of progress and economy with an eye toward the human aptitudes for resourcefulness and community.
Our candidates are understandably preoccupied with the only species that votes, but I suggest some perspective on the consequences of ignoring all the others. I prescribe E. O. Wilson’s “Future of Life” and, for follow-up care, Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”
They could finish with any novel by Wendell Berry. (My favorite is “Jayber Crow.”) While the farmlands and rural towns of our nation are mostly overlooked, it’s worth remembering that many people still live in them, retaining skills of self-sufficiency and neighborly cooperation that wait to be valued in the world to come.
JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN
Thanks for an opportunity to school the stars. As required reading for Obama I assign “The Prince” (Machiavelli), a manual detailing strategies for handling situations when turning the other cheek won’t do; for McCain “The Little Prince” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), a lyrical narrative about loving that’s not taming but loving by letting go; and in the spirit of gender equity, since there is only one female candidate, two books for Clinton — “Black Beauty” (Anna Sewell), a tale from the horse’s mouth about the trials and triumphs of being a dark horse; and any volume by Miss Manners that reminds a reader civility matters, even in presidential campaigns.
All three candidates should read all three of these books, but McCain gets first crack at Bob Harris’s “Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up.” A lighthearted overview of the insurrections and civil wars in the world today, it will help you tell your Sunnis from your Shiites, remember which Congo is which (it’s so hard to keep them straight!) and remind you whether the Waziris are on our side or not.
Obama has dibs on Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation.” Some have criticized the uncompromising tone of this atheist best seller, but it’s mild stuff compared with the acid you guys have been flinging around. The book will put you in touch with the fastest-growing religious minority in this country, help you understand why our European allies consider us so backward and encourage you to keep your distance from kooks who call themselves spiritual leaders.
Clinton should read, and then quickly pass along, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts,” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. A half-century of research in psychology has shown that we all overtrust our memory, judgment and rectitude. Nothing could be more important in a president than an awareness of this universal flaw.
For Clinton: “The Denial of Death,” by Ernest Becker. Just in case she wants to know what the rest of us have been wondering for years: What makes Hillary tick? An irrefutable explanation of vaunting ambition, the urge to heroism and the cost of our own good opinions of ourselves. Every person should read this book, politicians first.
For Obama: “The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation,” by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón. The perfect predebate review — missing none of the essence and all of the droning of the national commission’s report. It’s a rare person — Hillary? — who could slog through the original’s 600 pages and retain the necessary arsenal of facts to deploy.
For McCain: “The Worst Journey in the World,” by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. It’s going to be a long, hot summer for Mr. McCain, and what better company for the inevitable tumbles into existential doubt, fear of the unknown and mind-bending exhaustion than this classic of human striving, valor and folly at subzero temperatures?
Politicians rarely read whole books (their attention moves from this person they need to the next), so I commend, to each of the busy finalists of this year, an essay by Samuel Johnson. The essays are wells of deep wisdom.
For McCain: The Rambler No. 11, on anger in old age.
For Obama: The Rambler No. 196, on the illusions of young hope.
For Clinton: The Rambler No. 79, on demonizing one’s opponents.
They can profit from such wisdom — as can we all.
Obama might find some relief in the writings of the Rev. Billy Graham, for — amid the tedious homilies of the evangelist — Senator Obama could take consolation that his own incendiary minister, who has praised Louis Farrakhan, isn’t the only embarrassing minister around.
Clinton might find “Macbeth” a challenge — namely, to somehow read or see the play and not take the character of Lady Macbeth personally.
And poor old John McCain — who is even older and more old-fashioned than I am — should be forced to read Evan S. Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn.” With all due respect for Senator McCain’s military education and his heroic service in Vietnam — and as truly dumbfounded as I am by his support of the war in Iraq — I sincerely urge Senator McCain to read Connell’s brilliant account of the utter folly of Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn. With any luck, and stubborn though he is, he might learn that engaging the enemy isn’t always such a swell idea.
“The standard of American political discussion,” the historian Charles Francis Adams observed in 1901, “is not now so high as not to admit of elevation.” Knowledge of the past, he thought, was essential to such improvement. As the same is true today, I suggest that the candidates read:
William Appleman Williams, “Empire as a Way of Life,” because it reveals how deeply rooted in our history is the desire to reshape the world in the American image, and makes clear the disastrous consequences of imperial hubris.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “The Politics of Upheaval: 1935-1936,” because it demonstrates how the marriage of engaged social movements and an activist government can promote the common good even in the most dire economic circumstances, and offers an alternative vision to the market fundamentalism that now dominates American politics.
Mae M. Ngai, “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America,” because it traces the ever changing political and juridical definitions of “citizen” and “alien,” providing a historical perspective sorely lacking in current debates over immigration.
At the risk of sounding self-promoting, I hope they can also read my own “Story of American Freedom” and perhaps become inspired to make “freedom” once again what it has been in the past: a rallying cry for social justice, rather than the sterile shibboleth it has become in the hands of the current administration.
I’d advise all three candidates to take a brisk march through the Norton Anthology of American Literature, as well as certain American classics, for a crash (or refresher) course in who — as a nation — we are, and how we got to be this way: Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards for a notion of how important it is to resist our country’s periodic eruptions of harsh, punitive Puritanism; “Moby-Dick” for (among other things) a warning about the dangers of fanaticism and monomania; Walt Whitman for his passionate humanism, his celebratory spirit, his love of the physical and of the body; Emily Dickinson for an essential dash of mystery and beauty; “Huckleberry Finn” for its wit, its trenchant social analysis, its moral conscience; and the sermons of Martin Luther King for a model of the heights that rhetoric and oratory can reach. Finally, I’d suggest they read Fanny Trollope’s “Domestic Manners of the Americans” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” as helpful reminders of the fact that someone with a bracing sense of humor and a highly developed consciousness of the absurd is (whether they know it or not) always present, always watching everything they do.
Clinton is assigned “The Myth of Sisyphus,” by Albert Camus, whose hero rises above his fate only when he becomes conscious of its tragic absurdity: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
McCain is assigned “The Forever War,” by Dexter Filkins (coming in September — galleys available upon the senator’s request), written not by a defeatist but by a reporter whose every romantic notion of Iraq and war was obliterated by sustained contact with experience: “We waited in silence as the sun set. The stillness outside seemed the measure of our ignorance. The insurgents were coming, and now they were not. They were watching us.”
Obama is assigned “Sister Carrie,” by Theodore Dreiser, set in his own Chicago, but about the sort of American he doesn’t know: “She was a fair example of the middle American class — two generations removed from the emigrant. Books were beyond her interest — knowledge a sealed book. In the intuitive graces she was still crude. She could scarcely toss her head gracefully.”
The temptation to hand around copies of “The March of Folly” is great, with a large-print edition for anyone who suggests we’ll be in Iraq for 100 years. But look; it’s summer. These people have starred in a grueling reality show for 17 months now. Frankly it’s amazing that — apart from Bill Clinton — no one has spontaneously combusted. So I say let them read fiction, which the current administration has proved is more potent than fact anyway. Everyone gets Lampedusa’s “The Leopard,” because there’s no better portrait of a society grappling with its own decline. Copies all around of Roth’s “The Human Stain” as well; moral bankruptcy surely tops our other stunning defaults. And what could be more appropriate after a year and a half on the campaign trail than a novel about impersonation?
Lastly, three copies please of “Main Street.” All talk of the Scranton lace-making relatives aside, none of these candidates have been there in a while.
For Senator Obama, a gem from another anxious, bloated, speculative age, “The Great Gatsby,” that perfect tale of the American dream gone off the road.
As a reminder of the price of idealism, especially in an inflationary era, “The Quiet American” for Senator McCain. This is no time to be an innocent abroad.
Senator Clinton should curl up with “Middlemarch.” I can’t think of another novel in which our heroine survives both the perils of baking (metaphorical) cookies and the realization that she might not want to. Dorothea has made a mistake. And admits it.
Naturally the overachiever will read all six. The canny overachiever will do so between “Harry Potter” jackets.
All three candidates have written memoirs well in advance of this election year, unlike the contenders of long ago who counted on third-person “campaign biographies” to introduce them to the public outside their home states. In at least one historical instance, the author of the biography wound up being better known to posterity than the candidate he helped make president. I would urge our three senators to have a look at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Life of Franklin Pierce” (1852), in which the writer specifies qualities that supposedly recommend his old college chum for the highest position in the land.
Any history of Pierce’s hapless presidency might serve as a cautionary tale for aspirants to the office, but Hawthorne’s artful pre-presidential tribute can remind them, at this stage of things, not to take too seriously even the best-written endorsements and encomia, which inevitably proceed, at least in part, from the secret hope of reward. In Hawthorne’s case that would come in the form of the United States consul’s office in Liverpool, England, where he served until shortly after his bewildered friend Pierce was denied renomination in 1856.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL
For all three:
Robert Scheer’s “Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America.” This indictment of the military-industrial complex explains why any president committed to preserving our Republic must end a policy of permanent war. It is also a reminder, as is Jonathan Schell’s “Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger,” of the insanity of our nuclear strategy and the arrogance of our hypermilitarized foreign policy.
Charlie Savage’s “Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy” makes urgent a question virtually absent from this campaign so far: how does the next president rebuild a constitutional order dismantled by executive coup in the name of a false security? “Takeover” is also a reproach to the complacency of a press corps that lubricated the tracks for this administration’s executive power grab. See also David Cole and James X. Dempsey’s “Terrorism and the Constitution: Sacrificing Civil Liberties in the Name of National Security.”
Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” for exploding the myth that free markets and democracy always go hand in hand.
Taylor Branch’s trilogy of biographies of Martin Luther King Jr., “Parting the Waters,” “Pillar of Fire” and “At Canaan’s Edge” — essential reading for any president who cares about the struggle over democratic citizenship, and how the power of movements, fused with electoral politics, contributes to civilizing change.
For McCain, who has copped to not knowing anything about economics: John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Affluent Society,” an eloquent articulation of the values both moral and political of a mixed economy. Barbara Ehrenreich’s “This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation” for a dispatch from the premier reporter on the underside of capitalism. And to understand the paycheck-to-paycheck, two-job, real-life economics most Americans live by, he should pick up her “Nickel and Dimed” as well.
For Obama: William Greider’s “Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy.” By exposing the reality of how the money power in Washington shafts ordinary people, Greider tells citizens how they can take back their battered democracy — and a president how he can lead the way.
Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” traces Nixon’s role in shaping a peculiar kind of right-wing populism — a mythical reimagining of American political life in which a besieged “silent majority” is forever fending off the depredations and condescension of liberals, intellectuals and elites of all stripes. It is clear the right is intent, as it has been in every recent election, on turning its opponent into a latter-day George McGovern. No matter how miscast Obama is in that part, “Nixonland” will give him unrivaled insight into what the G.O.P. has planned for him.
For Obama and Clinton: Eric Alterman’s “Why We’re Liberals.” Read it to remember that “liberal” is a label with a proud, patriotic history and one whose primary tenets are shared by supermajorities of the American people. Rather than run from it, they should claim it proudly, as John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt did, and then dare their opponents to continue to defame it.
I would urge the three presidential candidates to read — or reread — two books from the 1970s that could help them confront the deepening (and now deeply intertwined) problem of our food and energy economies. Long before either climate change or the obesity epidemic were on the national scope, Wendell Berry’s “Unsettling of America” made the case for a way of life and a kind of agriculture that might have averted both — and could still make an important contribution to solving these problems. In “Diet for a Small Planet,” Frances Moore Lappé shone a light on the wastefulness and environmental costs of meat-eating, predicting that humanity’s growing appetite for meat would lead to hunger for the world’s poor. Together these two visionary writers — who fell out of favor during the cheap-food and cheap-energy years that began in the ’80s and are just now coming to a calamitous close — still have much to say about the way out of our current predicament.
I recommend four books for our candidates, and since these are perilous social and economic times, I confine my selection to the social sciences.
“Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation,” edited by Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson, should be required reading for all three candidates. What is unique about America? What drives its vitality in economic, cultural and social affairs? Why is it so envied and reviled in the rest of the world? Why are its politics so peculiar? Why is it so culturally fraught? These questions have perplexed Westerners, and Americans trying to understand their own society, for two centuries. The one thing all are agreed on is that America is exceptional. It is to an understanding of just how distinctive a nation it is that this work is dedicated. The editors have assembled a distinguished group of specialists who explore all aspects of the society in accessible language: its economy, bureaucracy, legal and criminal justice systems, political and popular culture, military, religion, family life and media, as well as the role of race, immigration, health care and philanthropy, to list only some of the subjects examined. If the candidates want an authoritative up-to-date portrait of the vast, complex and endlessly fascinating country they hope to lead, this is the book for them. (Fair disclosure: I wrote the chapter on black Americans. But the other 20 are indispensable.)
If McCain and Hillary Clinton really want to understand the Obama phenomenon, especially his popularity among younger Americans, then their bedside reading must include Richard D. Alba and Victor Nee’s “Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration.” Assimilation has become a dirty word among American intellectuals and opinion leaders, especially with the ascendancy of the multicultural ideal. Diversity celebrates difference and the politics of identity, while assimilation is spurned either as a myth or as Anglo-conformity posing as “melting pot.” But beneath the diverse currents that crisscross American life runs a deep, invincible force — one that selects, integrates and fashions the broad, sometimes cruel but ever transforming course of American civilization. That force is assimilation. What it did for European immigrants a century ago it is now doing in our new immigration age, in sublime indifference to the mean-spirited politics and academic cacophonies that distort and misrepresent it. This magnificent work, arguably one of the finest pieces of sociological craftsmanship in recent decades, reveals assimilation as the “master trend” in American history, a potent process that constantly redefines the mainstream, embodied and expressed at one temporal bend in the figure of an Andrew Jackson, at another in a John Kennedy and now, it would appear, in the person of Obama.
Why did the good citizens of Seattle riot against the meeting of so obscure a bureaucracy as the World Trade Organization? Why do the banana producing states of the Eastern Caribbean universally hate Bill Clinton? Like protesters all over Europe and the developing world, they object to globalization and its negative and unfair consequences. However, as the Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz argues in his wise, readable and very balanced work “Globalization and Its Discontents,” globalization has brought, on the whole, much good to the third world, and is a positive force in the reduction of world poverty. So why is it so reviled? In answering this question Stiglitz casts the light of a powerful, dispassionate and compassionate mind, thoroughly informed by his years in international development agencies and as an adviser to the Clinton administration who often found himself at odds with the president’s habit of serving individual commercial interests at the expense of hundreds of thousands of third world farmers. The problem, he shows, in a work that is urgently recommended to all three candidates, is not globalization itself, but the fundamentally flawed and often unfair one-size-fits-all economic policies pursued by international agencies like the I.M.F. and the World Bank, as well as the hypocrisy of advanced countries that force poor nations to reduce tariffs and subsidies to the poor while keeping their own trade barriers and subsidies, to the detriment of their own consumers and the devastation of poor third world farmers.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry, every journalist facing fading ratings, every politician bent on substituting rhetoric for action, is calling for a conversation on race. These attempts invariably fail, or make matters worse. That’s because, as Richard Thompson Ford, a law professor at Stanford, shows in his incisively argued work “The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse,” the rituals of racial transaction in America are too often plagued by people playing the race card. Blacks do it too often; but so do whites. What’s worse, as we have witnessed in the primary campaigns, both sides accuse the other of playing it. What’s really going on? It is imperative that the candidates find out, if only to make sure they don’t do it, and that they recognize it when opponents and advisers play this corrosive game. Ford’s book excavates this “national patois,” as he calls it, and shows how dangerous and short-sighted it can be, as well as the ways in which it distorts good policy aimed at helping the minority poor. Senator McCain, who recently revisited the Katrina disaster with refreshing candor, will find Ford’s critique of the use of the race card by black leaders of interest; Clinton will find much to contemplate in his chapters on racism by analogy and profiling; and Obama, a former constitutional lawyer, will surely be intrigued by Ford’s ingenious defense of affirmative action.
I think all the candidates would enjoy John Burnham Schwartz’s newish novel, “The Commoner.” The main character is based on Japan’s Empress Michiko, who in 1959 was the first “commoner” to marry into the imperial family. I suspect the candidates would identify with the ritual and decorum demanded of the empress while at the same time they’d be transported into a richly detailed foreign world. My second recommendation, since no doubt campaigning is exhausting and even presidential candidates deserve a giggle, is Stephen Colbert’s “I Am America (and So Can You!).” The “Sex and Dating” chapter alone will surely, at least for a few minutes, help them forget superdelegate tallies, clingy bitter Pennsylvanians and our next 100 years in Iraq.
Three suggestions — which of course the candidates may have read already.
Robert M. La Follette (foreword by Allan Nevins): “La Follette’s Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences.” McCain, in particular, might find much to admire and consider in the straight-talking La Follette, among the most admired and forceful United States senators ever to hold the office. Many of the great Progressive’s insights seem prophetic, all three candidates might agree.
William Carlos Williams: “In the American Grain.” A fundamental work of American literature, this book’s vivid prose refreshes familiar characters and events. It is as though the reader is learning for the first time about Columbus, Montezuma, Raleigh, Cotton Mather, Aaron Burr, Daniel Boone, Benjamin Franklin. If Obama has not already read this great, compact book he might find renewed inspiration in Williams’s large vision and detailed perception of the United States and its past. For any politician, Williams’s stripping away of cliché might feel exhilarating.
Willa Cather, “The Song of the Lark.” For me, the greatest work ever written about ambition in an American context. Cather’s account of an artist’s life begins with the deprivation, loneliness and yearning of a small town on the Plains. Her character Thea Kronborg’s life journey also includes other American terrains: the landscape and pre-Columbian artifacts of the Southeast, and her eventual entry into the great world, beginning in Clinton’s home city, Chicago.
I can only answer in the negative: I want them not to read The New York Times, while subscribing to The Financial Times.Continue reading the main story
Fin Dolan, advertising agency copywriter and narrator of John Kenney’s engaging first novel, is approaching his 40th birthday while still “waiting for my life to begin.” That Kenney, who brings to this story his own experience of 17 years in the advertising business, is able to transform a man who’s basically drifting through life into such an appealing character is a tribute to his skill. Belying its debut status, Truth in Advertising is a mature novel that veers from pathos to humor and back without a misstep.
After eight years with a New York agency owned by Japan’s largest shipping company, it’s easy to understand why Fin thinks he’s stuck in neutral. He fights to keep his creative juices flowing while crafting ads for a demanding diaper manufacturer, and he’s only recently ended his engagement for reasons even he doesn’t fully understand, leaving him with two first-class airline tickets but nowhere to go. When he’s recruited to produce a Super Bowl commercial for the world’s first biodegradable diaper—a job that will require him to abandon his plan to flee to Mexico alone for the Christmas holiday—he’s tossed into the middle of a nasty existential crisis.
If Kenney had been content to confine his story to Fin’s floundering performance at work and nearly nonexistent love life, this novel would be entertaining enough, if slight. Instead, he layers over the sharply observed, often witty portrait of Fin’s professional and personal troubles an empathetic account of his protagonist’s struggle to come to terms with the legacy of an abusive father.
For Kenney, the business of advertising—a business that exists to sell us products we didn’t even know we needed—serves as a proxy for the world of work that, for most of us, consumes the majority of our waking hours. “We settle into a life,” Fin muses. “Maybe we made this life or maybe it simply happened.” And yet, he concludes, “We look for something deeper than merely a paycheck.” There’s a certain nobility in this story of an Everyman whose stumbles and small triumphs illuminate our own lives.