Thursday, January 22, 2009

The First Reader

Now that he's got a new job, Barack Obama might find his reading time somewhat curtailed. ("Hey, Cabinet Secretaries, talk amongst yourselves -- I'm finishing the new Toni Morrison.") While this may be necessary for the country it may be frustrating for Obama, and a loss for the publishing industry, which has repeatedly picked up -- and jumped on -- hints regarding what he may be reading (an example being an entry on this blog last May).

Obama is obviously not the first President who's a reader, and, indeed, comparisons between him and his immediate predecessor on this count may be somewhat overstated. Yet, as Michiko Kakutani recently pointed out in a New York Times article, there may be a difference between the type of reading Obama and George W. Bush are attracted to, and its purpose. At least as President, Bush seemed to gravitate towards what Kakutani terms "prescriptive" reading: books pushing a particular policy or philosophy towards which Bush was already gravitating. Obama, with his more literary bent, seems drawn toward philosophy, as well as fiction, literature and drama, which has the purpose of teaching more how to think than what to think. This type of reading both reinforces, and is reinforced by, Obama's own experiences as a writer.

How this will affect his Presidency remains to be seen, of course, and would probably be impossible to measure anyway. Yet Obama's reading background seems, to me, at least to be encouraging. Acquiring information is one thing. Knowing how to evaluate it, and what to do with it, is quite another.

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