Tag Archives: reading

Do Politicians Have Souls? Do They Read Books?

When asked by Steve Berntson, a farmer from Paulina, Iowa, to discuss books that had shaped his life, Rick Perry turned the question back to the economy and failed to name even a single book that influenced him, or cheered him, or inspired him. (New York Times, “After Rocky Start, More Study, and Sleep, for Perry”, October 10, 2011). As an avid book reader who has found wisdom and comfort and joy in books, I suspect the question was asked for the same reason that it was dodged: because the books we cherish — the books that influence us and move us and which we lend out to others and reread ourselves again and again — reveal an important aspect of who we are. As I wrote in my book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, “We are what we love to read, and when we admit to loving a book, we admit that the book represents some aspect of ourselves truly, whether it is that we are suckers for romance or pining for adventure or secretly fascinated by crime.”

What we love to read can reveal that we have a propensity for mercy (A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines), an understanding of war (Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry), a generosity of spirit (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens), an intolerance of prejudice (The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty), a dedication to service (Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer); that we distrust dogma (A Gift Upon the Shore by W.K. Wren), strive against injustice (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee), and realize that our actions can have unredeemable consequences (Indignation by Philip Roth).

The books we love reveal how much we value connection (Howards End by E.M. Forster), cross-cultural understanding (Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks), cross-generational exchange (The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray by Walter Mosley), and being alive (Man in the Dark by Paul Auster).

The question of whether a politician reads at all is a good one, and should be asked and answered more often. But the question of which books a politician has loved throughout his or her lifetime must be asked and answered. Because in such an answer we will find an inkling of the soul of the politician, and everyone knows that can be very hard to find.

This post can also be found on The Huffington Post.

Another Lesson from Tolstoy

Tolstoy Lied. That is the name of a book a good friend lent to me: “You might be interested in this one,” she noted wryly. Despite its irksome title, Tolstoy Lied by Rachel Kadish is a lovely, witty, and insightful novel of manners. If, that is, manners are even possible within the cutthroat atmosphere of an English department in a major university. The narrator, Tracy Farber, is a professor of American lit and a great believer in the possibility of happiness. Hence, her disgruntlement with Tolstoy, who implied with his oh-so-famous first line from Anna Karenina,”happy families are all alike’ every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” that happy people are boring people, and that to be different, i.e. interesting, is to be unhappy. Tracy wants to be interesting and engaged with life, she wants happiness, love, and tenure at her university and she will not compromise her principles — or her devotion to truth — to get all that she wants. Unfortunately, the result may be that she does not get what she wants after all. Is happiness really so elusive?

I fell for this book from the page when Tracy described her love affair with books, describing the smell of them and something new, the sound of them: “turn their pages for enough hours and years and you start to rely on it, just as people who live by the shore assimilate the rhythm of the waves: the sweep and ripple making the end of a page, a sound that seems to be made by the turning of your thoughts rather than the movement of your hand.” No e-reader for Tracy: she loves the real thing, books with pages and histories, and even a few lessons or two. Happiness indeed.

And btw, Tolstoy did not lie.

Save a Bookstore: Buy a Book (or Two, or Three)

Tomorrow June 25th is Save a Bookstore Day, with its own Facebook event page and a very clear agenda: on Saturday, all of us who love our local bookstore, will go out and show our love by buying a book at that bookstore — or an armload of books, if the pocketbook allows.

Not sure where your local bookstore is? Check out Indiebound’s helpful bookstore searcher, mark your routes, grab your kids, and get yourself out to the bookstore tomorrow. Be sure to pick up Tolstoy and the Purple Chair for all the book lovers you know — or for anyone looking for ideas on the meaning of life — and why not grab S.J. Bolton’s latest thriller, Now You See Me, for great summer reading? I also recommend Phil Rickman’s The Bones of Avalon, for a great Tudor mystery; Geraldine Brooks’ beautiful Caleb’s Crossing for compelling historical fiction; and Otto Penzler’s wild The Big Book of Adventure Stories, perfect for reading on the beach, in between dips into the water and trips to the ice cream stand.

Bookstores provide flavor, life, and pleasure to our towns, cities, and villages — don’t let them disappear, falling victim to the economy, the internet, the UPS delivery guy. Buy food local, and buy books local. Just imagine what lengths our local bookstores might have to go to, if we don’t go out tomorrow and next week and the week after, to pick up a book or two. What happened in Russia could happen here….