Elect a President Who Reads

A couple of years ago, I encountered a meme circulating: date a girl who reads. Best expressed in a letter from Rosemarie Urquico, the meme espouses the attractiveness of a reading mind.

It should be no different for the person we send to work in our highest public office. We should elect presidents who read.

A year ago, I shared a short excerpt about how Lincoln was a reader. Barack Obama is a reader. The man set to replace him isn't interested in books.

To be clear, simply reading books doesn't a good president make. However, understanding the way one thinks about reading illuminates how one thinks about leading. A recent interview affirmed the gratitude I have for the current president — and the importance of reading. On its surface, it's a conversation about books. In truth, it's a conversation about life. I'll pull from the transcript at length because it hits on so much of what makes storytelling and books powerful.

A younger Obama turned to books while traveling because the "idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing. . ." As a college student, he used "writing and reading and thinking . . . as a way to rebuild [himself]."

Reflecting on a period of life that he labels "hermetic," Obama notes a key discovery he found through reading:

[I]t reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.

Obama notes how the power of stories was evident in his earlier work as a community organizer, previewing who he would become on the national stage of politics:

The great thing was that it was useful in my organizing work. Because when I got there, the guy who had hired me said that the thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories. And he told me that if you learn how to listen to people’s stories and can find what’s sacred in other people’s stories, then you’ll be able to forge a relationship that lasts.

But my interest in public service and politics then merged with the idea of storytelling.

Throughout the conversation, Obama shares some thoughts on how reading helped with the difficult job of being president. On the value of cross-training as a reader:

But this is part of why it was important to pick up the occasional novel during the presidency, because most of my reading every day was briefing books and memos and proposals. And so working that very analytical side of the brain all the time sometimes meant you lost track of not just the poetry of fiction, but also the depth of fiction.

Obama relays that reading helped him understand the minds of others — and get out of his own:

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

On Shakespearean tragedies as a touchstone during his presidency:

[Digging into the tragedies] is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings. . . It gives me a sense of perspective.

Another text that Obama turned to was a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Bedroom:

And there have been times in the evening when I’d just walk over, because it’s right next to my office, my home office, and I just read it.

And perspective is exactly what is wanted. At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president, I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.

Lincoln was just one of many in a cabinet of the past that he turned to as a reader:

I think that during those periods, Lincoln’s writings, King’s writings, Gandhi’s writings, Mandela’s writings — I found those particularly helpful, because what you wanted was a sense of solidarity.

For Obama, books were a way of unlocking the power of story, a force in society whose necessity never diminishes:

When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.

He continues, noting that the act of reading can be a rebellion against the pressures of the present:

There’s something particular about quieting yourself and having a sustained stretch of time that is different from music or television or even the greatest movies.

And part of what we’re all having to deal with right now is just a lot of information overload and a lack of time to process things. So we make quick judgments and assign stereotypes to things, block certain things out, because our brain is just trying to get through the day.

With an eye to the next chapter, Obama still finds a place for stories as an antidote to despair:

I think that what one of the jobs of political leaders going forward is, is to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people. And America is unique in having to stitch together all these disparate elements — we’re not one race, we’re not one tribe, folks didn’t all arrive here at the same time.

What holds us together is an idea, and it’s a story about who we are and what’s important to us. And I want to make sure that we continue that.

We should elect a president who reads.