A peek inside America's book bag

Titles to entice President Obama

by Julia Keller

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

29 April 2009


We know he’s busy. We understand that. We’re not even the slightest bit miffed that he seemed to ignore our advice, because heaven knows, advice is something that presidents get plenty of. The suggestion box at the White House, we suspect, always runneth over.

A few weeks ago, this column took as its mission the persuading of President Obama to give only books as gifts to the leaders of other nations. Not jewelry, not sculpture, not scarves. Just books.

Obama, we pointed out, is repeatedly referred to as the “literary president,” as a man who knows his way around a metaphor, a man never known to willingly split an infinitive or dangle a participle.

Given that reputation, we were somewhat disappointed that he presented DVDs to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during the latter’s visit to Washington, especially because Brown gave Obama books by English authors, among other gifts.

We urged the president to strike a blow for the primacy of American literature - and the importance of reading in general - by restricting his gift-giving to books.

On his recently concluded trip abroad, however, Obama appeared to reject our respectful entreaty. He gave the Queen of England an iPod preloaded with music, pictures and videos.

This was a disappointment. We have nothing against technology; we would’ve been content with a Kindle. But once again, the written word was dissed.

Yet we intend to be persistent. Persistence, we know, is a quality that Obama admires. “I’m a big believer in persistence,” he said at a recent press conference. We’ll keep pushing the president to stimulate the book business the oldfashioned way: Not by proposing a massive government bailout of the publishing industry, but by going out and buying books.

The “we” that I’ve employed here is not an attempt to be coy. As Mark Twain once noted, the only people who can get by with “we” are kings and people with tapeworms. No, I really do mean “we,” because I’m not alone in my desire to see literature given the kind of respect only a popular president can give it. In the aforementioned column that urged Obama to give only books as gifts, I asked readers which books they would like to see the president press upon his fellow world leaders. Which books provide the truest portrait of the United States - our history, our people, our values, our contradictions? Which books most profoundly explore Americans’ dreams and aspirations?

Which books are crucial?

Dozens of readers wrote with suggestions. Here’s a sampling:

“He should hand out Theodore H. White’s ‘Making of the President’ series, 1960-1972,” says Steve Martin, referring to White’s series chronicling the presidential elections of those years. Each volume was published the year after the election it described.

“It would give leaders a feel for Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and also show how our democracy really works - or doesn’t.”

Rick Bail echoed a number of people who clamor for Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged” to be required reading in this time of economic distress, as the government takes unprecedented control of banks - a step against which Rand warned in her massive work. “I suggest that the first book that President Obama presents to his foreign visitors is Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ The only caveat (is that) he cannot give this book away before his entire cabinet and he have read it.”

Joan Colby has an ambitious list of 20 works, both fiction and non-fiction, that she would like to see Obama hand out to his guests, including classics such as “Main Street” (1920), by Sinclair Lewis; “John Adams” (2001), by David McCullough; “Lonesome Dove” (1985), by Larry McMurtry; and “My­ntonia” (1918), by Willa Cather.

Suellen Hoy, though, suggests that Obama stick with nonfiction: “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (2008), by Annette Gordon-Reed, and “Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion” (2008), by Walter Nugent.

Non-fiction is also on the mind of Joe Scarry, who argues on behalf of Garry Wills’ “Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” (1992). “Not just for what it tells us about the core values of our polity,” Scarry explains, “but also for the way it reveals the texture of American culture in its interweaving of topics ranging from panhellenism, the rural cemetery movement, Transcendentalism, and, most of all, our love affair with beautiful language.”

Rolf Thoryk casts his vote for “Home of the Brave: A Patriot’s Guide to American History” (1976), by John Alexander Carroll and Odie B. Faulk, which he finds “very honest, straightforward, and most interesting” because it is “not revisionism based on the political leanings of the author(s).

“What I found most enlightening in this book,” Thoryk continues, “was how even though times have changes radically since the previous centuries, people basically have not. Political maneuverings and tactics were almost as embarrassingly underhanded in those days, as they are in 2009.”

We’re not certain if Obama would welcome that particular insight, but we’ll mention it to him all the same.

Topics: barack obama
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