The Oval Bookshelf
Posted by Nick Milne on September 13, 2010
There’s a short and somewhat provocative article at NRO concerning the reading habits of the President(s) of the United States. It’s not great, to be sure, but it does point to an issue of considerable interest to those in the discipline in which I work: what do people in power read for pleasure? Or – more importantly – for personal edification and enlightenment?
There have been regrettably few major modern engagements with this issue, and I guess the power dynamics involved may account for that. The presidents and prime ministers and popes and so forth could potentially subject us to a census concerning our reading habits, if they wished; we have no authority by which to similarly examine them. The best we can do with living rulers is to snap up chance glimpses of books sitting on their desks or being carried by aides, or wring a morsel or two from a non-policy-oriented interview. It becomes somewhat easier, posthumously, as we can examine their personal papers, letters, notes, and so on, to develop a picture of just what (if anything) they were reading.
The article above notes that Obama recently mentioned he was reading Edmund Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. And well he should! It’s terrific. It reminded me that I had been meaning to make a post about Roosevelt’s own reading habits – which were expansive, to say the least – but I simply don’t have the time to go into it in any depth just now. Those likely to be reading this blog will perhaps be gratified to discover that he greatly enjoyed Leacock’s Nonsense Novels, Chesterton’s Heretics (if I remember correctly), and various works of Kipling, with whom he also kept up a lively correspondence. They were sources of grim comfort to one another when their respective sons were killed in the Great War (John Kipling at the Battle of Loos in 1915; Quentin Roosevelt in action with the USAAF, shot down in 1918), and had certain sympathies on certain subjects besides.
More on that later, though.