Given Rush Limbaugh’s rather scurrilous attempts to paint Obama as someone stupid and shallow, I thought it might be important to revisit the issue of Obama’s reading habits as an adult, and what those habits say about him.
Back in July, Laura Miller at Salon.com had an extensive essay on Barack Obama’s literary influences. I went through the entire essay and share below all the books and authors that she mentions as contributors to the shaping of Obama. Obviously, the list is partial. Miller describes Obama as a devourer of books, and that means that Obama has gleaned insights from thousands of books over his lifetime. As a young man in Chicago, for example, Obama characteristically spent:
many hours holed up in a spartan apartment with volumes of ‘philosophy and literature.’
In any case, here’s the list of the 19 authors and books Miller mentions:
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
- Parting the Waters (Taylor Branch)
Money quote on Obama’s history reading:
[W]hen we turn to the book Obama has most recently cited as a major influence, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” it’s not the Lincoln of popular American myth — the secular saint and martyr — we find praised there. It’s Lincoln the wily politician, who was not above carefully hedging his public positions and who prided himself on cajoling his opponents to his side.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Money quote on Obama and Nietzsche:
Obama . . . went through a period of “devouring” the work of Nietzsche while living in New York. It’s difficult to say what Obama might have absorbed from the German philosopher, mostly because Nietzsche himself is so hard to pin down, but one of Obama’s favorite instructors at Occidental told Mendell that anyone who immersed themselves in his thought would learn “to call everything into question.”
- Reinhold Niebuhr. Specifically mentioned is his 1932 classic Moral Man and Immoral Society.
Money quote on Obama and Niebuhr:
Obama told Brooks that what he’d taken from Niebuhr is “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.”
- Abraham Lincoln
- Malcolm X
Money quote on Obama and Malcolm X:
According to “Dreams From My Father,” among the characters in African-American literature, the adolescent Obama felt closest to Malcolm X, whose discipline and “repeated acts of self-creation” impressed him. Yet, when Malcolm wrote of the desire to “expunge” the white blood in his veins, Obama “was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents on some uncharted border.”
- Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals(Saul Alinsky 1971).
Money quote on Obama and Alinsky:
[Obama] has read “Rules for Radicals,” according to his campaign; it would be hard to find any thoughtful community organizer who hasn’t. Hillary Clinton’s senior honors thesis at Wellesley College was on “the Alinsky model,” although after her husband’s election to the presidency, his administration tried to keep it under wraps for fear that it would make her appear too much the firebrand.
If you haven’t read “Rules for Radicals,” it’s not what you might expect. Written with a vigor and a panache that amply convey Alinsky’s legendary charisma, it is less a primer than a concise, witty and iconoclastic manifesto crossed with a war manual à la Sun Tzu. Alinsky wrote it to correct what he viewed as the many fatal errors of the generation of activists produced by the 1960s, whom he regarded as too dogmatic, too self-righteous, too romantic, too idealistic, too infatuated with exotic ideas and too impatient. Stylistically, the model can only be Nietzsche; the book is full of breathtakingly provocative assertions and nifty aphorisms. “He who fears corruption fears life,” Alinsky writes at one point.
- Herman Melville
- Toni Morrison
- E. L. Doctorow (perhaps Obama’s favorite)
- Philip Roth
- Ernest Hemmingway
- Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
Money quote on Obama’s novel reading:
A taste for serious fiction is rare in the American male these days, but Obama has it. According to several friends, he even tried his hand at writing short stories during those early years in Chicago, and he recalls priggishly scolding his half sister, Maya, while she was visiting him in New York, because she chose to watch TV instead of reading some novels he’d given her.
I notice no mention of poets or poetry. I wonder if Obama reads poetry, and who he might like.
Miller’s full essay can be read here: http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2008/07/07/obama_books/print.html
What I take away from Obama’s adult reading list, and from observing his life as a politician, is this: Obama has a great deal of “negative capability.”
Negative capability is a term that Keats applied to Shakespeare. It is the ability to imagine oneself inside the skin of others—and to walk in her (or his) shoes.
Obama, I believe, has developed habits of imaginitive empathy—and his social activism and reading have reinforced one another.
In other words, Obama has learned, by his political practice, to empathize with the lives of whites and non-whites, males and females, and his reading of literary fiction and philosophy has given him an unusually subtle and nuanced imaginitive range.
The result: In January, we’re likely to have an intelligent and empathetic president with a gift for words and a grounding in the Western canon of literature.
Won’t that be nice?
Here’s Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) singing a song that captures, I think, the idea of negative capability, and Obama’s promise: