You would expect President Obama's summer reading list to be criticized if he'd picked up a copy of, say, Fixing the Economy for Dummies, or maybe something by Howard Zinn. But perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that conservative critics find ways to nitpick Obama's book choices, even when they're just mainstream, widely acclaimed works of fiction. The National Review's Tevi Troy does exactly that in his column today, which we thought would eventually reveal itself as a sharp satire of the right's knee-jerk tendency to find faults with any inconsequential thing Obama ever does. But it's not. He means it all. It is mind blowing.
After naming all the books Obama purchased in Martha's Vineyard or brought with him there, Troy proclaims it, "the oddest assortment of presidential reading material ever disclosed." What exactly is so odd about it?
First, five of the six are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president, because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality.
Really? We think National Review writer Tevi Troy is literally the only person alive who would make that charge. Or is he?
Sure enough, the list has already prompted this accusation. As Reuters described his selections, “President Barack Obama, perhaps seeking a break from harsh reality after a tough summer battling the economy and Republicans in Congress, has picked a summer reading list that is long on fiction.”
Taking a "break from harsh reality" is what vacations are all about. That's not the same as being "out of touch with reality," which makes it sound as if Obama can't separate the plot of his books from real-world events. Perhaps fiction is actually this confusing in Troy's experience.
Beyond the issue of fiction vs. nonfiction, there is also the question of genre. The Bayou Trilogy has received excellent reviews, but it is a mystery series. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, not every presidential reading selection is worth revealing to the public. Bill Clinton, for example, used to love mysteries, but he did not advertise the titles of what he once called “my little cheap thrills outlet.”
Tevi Troy's Bizarre Rules of Presidential Reading: It's okay for presidents to read mysteries, and to admit to reading mysteries — just don't tell us the titles!
Room is another well-received novel, but it is about a mother and child trapped in an 11-by-11-foot room. This claustrophobic adventure does not strike me as the right choice for someone trying to escape the perception that he is trapped in a White House bubble.
Amazing. If Evel Knievel witnessed the leap that Troy just made, he'd say, "Wow, I guess I suck at leaping." Let's cut to the end of this thoughtful piece of analysis.
The annual book list should be a relatively easy way to make the president appear to be on top of things and in control. This year’s list, alas, reveals a president who appears to be neither.
If Troy thinks Obama should only read material that directly relates to his duties as president, he could make that argument. Maybe Obama really should spend his free time boning up on economic theory or counterinsurgency methods. But that's not what Troy is saying. He seems to think that any work of nonfiction would inherently make Obama appear more "on top of things and in control" than any work of fiction. So would a Gandhi biography help Obama create jobs? Would a history of the Civil War help him revive the economy?
Most important: Do any normal people even give a shit what books the president brings on vacation?
What’s Obama Reading? [National Review]