President Obama’s vacation reading list leaked and I must say as an English-major American, I’m not impressed. Here’s what he’s got: Hot, Flat, And Crowded By Tom Friedman, David McCullough’s John Adams bio, Plainsong by Kent Haruf, Lush Life by Richard Price and The Way Home by George Pelecanos.
First of all, I’m not so much critiquing what Obama’s reading as what he wants us to think about what he’s reading. I could care less if curls up with a Harlequin romance at the end of the night, he’s got a stressful job and I won’t begrudge him whatever entertainment he picks. However, releasing his book list in such a deliberate way is to invite comment. What is the president saying about the intersection of his interests and what the public wants to hear regarding the reading habits of a glamorous and intelligent chief executive? All by way of saying I’ll make fun of it any way I choose.
Some notes about the selection as a whole. If Slate is calling you out for reading only white men, you’ve got a problem. With a canon-busting president, is it too much to ask for some non-male writers of color? Overall the books are all more or less popular and mainstream. These are books people who don’t necessarily read a lot of books have heard of but a large number of people who do read have actually read. This way Joe the Methhead can say, “I heard that John Adams one was good” because he saw a sign for it in Borders while buying his nephew a gift card. At the same time my entire self-satisfied hometown of Palo Alto, California said, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded was good, but I liked The World Is Flat better.” If President Obama knows how to do one thing it’s thread the needle.
As for the books themselves, I don’t have a whole lot to say. I read the first 50-or-so pages of John Adams before deciding that if I ever saw another person described as “of Braintree” I would burn down the next McCullough display in the school bookstore. I’ve written in the past about biography and its inherent weaknesses as a genre so I won’t add much to that except to say that biographies seem to be both the lowest form of non-fiction and the most widely read. It might be too easy to say that’s just because they’re easy to read but, look at that!, I just did anyway.
Anyone who’s been on the metro has heard of Pelecanos. I’m simultaneously dismayed by mystery novels and books advertised on public transportation, but William Gibson kicked my ass when it came to assumptions about genre fiction, so I’ll leave it alone. Lush Life is supposed to be good (see, it worked!) and Plainsong has been on my parents’ shelf forever.
Tom Friedman is a carnival barker for neoliberal capitalism and a seriously bad writer. I’ll leave the ownage to Matt Taibbi because he does it so well. Also it seems a little like sucking up to Friedman who still has an influential (though god knows why) column. Even more so it seems like sucking up to the pseudo-intellectual bookclub constituency, “serious people.” It doesn’t matter that Friedman couldn’t pass a ninth-grade metaphor class, he says pleasantly that we can basically keep being who we are with what we have. I have no tolerance for this crap. The fact that putting this on the list is reaching out to intellectuals is disheartening.