By Jeff Munroe

Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, 2006-2015

Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, was troubled about a decade ago by the admission of then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he didn’t read much. (Sound familiar?) Martell, a resident of the entertainingly named Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, believed “If you are going to lead, you must read,” and decided to send a book every two weeks to Harper.

Over the course of four years Martell sent Harper over 100 books. Books are so many things – including subversive – and Martell’s literary act of resistance appeals to me.

What books should be sent to the famously non-reading American President? I want to start a one person book club.

The first book I’d send is Charlotte’s Web. The President’s school bully vibe leads me to believe he wasn’t read to as a child. I imagine the off-again, on-again summit with that other school bully Kim Jong-un consisting of the demagogue and dictator sitting at the separate ends of a bed with a nurturing adult (Oprah?) in the middle reading Charlotte’s Web. I can’t think of a better way to end their saber rattling and gamesmanship.

Then I’d send The Great Gatsby, because life is about more than greed.
Next is Night by Elie Wiesel. The President has problems with empathy. This should help.

Because Night is so heavy, my next book is The Wind in the Willows. I wish the President would slow down and savor life, and the adventures of Badger and Toad and Rat and Mole beckon us to do that. Plus there is a lot to learn about not taking yourself too seriously in that book, and the President could stand a few lessons in that.

I’d send All the King’s Men hoping he might learn something about how dangerous populism can be. And All the President’s Men so he might appreciate how silly the idea of pardoning yourself is. And while we’re at it, he ought to read Lord of the Flies.

He’s going to need more than one lesson in empathy, so we’d come back to it with To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s a book about race, too, and that’s another area in which the President shows deficiencies. Wouldn’t it be great if he read it and then told others about how much he’d learned from Atticus Finch?

And then I’d want him to read Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying, which shows how dangerous and near impossible it is for someone to gain asylum in the United States. The President needs to be reminded that immigrants and refugees are human beings.

Then I think I’d lighten it up, and send some young adult literature his way. His youngest son is the perfect age for this. Both father and son would be served well by reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it,” and Eustace is transformed from arrogant boor to dragon to likable person. Is it too much to root for something like that happening again?

And then I’d send Pride and Prejudice. The President would protest that it seems too much like something for girls, but Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy will help him understand that lust and love are not the same thing. He needs help with that. Mr. Darcy could give him lessons on what it means to be a gentleman.

After that, I’d want him to read Gilead. He’d object to this one, too, since his predecessor is a fan of Marilynne Robinson, but it is so beautifully written I can’t help but wish just a little of Robinson’s way with words would rub off.

Another book he won’t want to read is Between the World and Me. Race is such a big deal. I know he won’t like the idea of reading something by someone named Ta-Nehesi, but you-know-who was elected to be President of the whole United States, not just President of the people who look like him. If he intends to be President of the whole country, he could start by listening to Ta-Nehesi Coates.

I know this is all wishful thinking, but acts of resistance aren’t about changing him as much as not letting him change me. I don’t want to be a suspicious, angry, mean-spirited, cruel, misogynist, racist, old white dude. One benefit of reading is it helps me rise above those impulses. I want the President to do the same.

I know my booklist is an incomplete beginning – I haven’t even mentioned anything by Twain or George Eliot, maybe the greatest novelists in the English language. What else should be included? Billy Budd comes to mind. As does Animal Farm. And certainly Godric has to be on the list. What else? What titles would you send the non-reading President?

Jeff Munroe is the Executive Vice President of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

9 Comments

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    So the thought exercise for today, based on the above essay, is to contemplate the President’s gauche intellect, and to pick books to fix his racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and other maladies. And I thought yesterday’s post was condescending!

    But, since you brought it up, I would like him to read (audiobook?) The Closing of the American Mind by Bloom. It’s a little dated, but it does a great job at explaining the nihilistic culture in which we live, and how colleges and universities have been at the vanguard of this path we are taking. It may give him some insight as to why people with elitist aspirations can’t stand him.

    I will, however, try to reread The Wind in the Willows soon. It wouldn’t hurt me to try to be more like Mole and less like Ratty.

  • Tim Hoezee says:

    Jeff – Maybe your time would be better spent thinking about which books of encouragement you should be sending to the next Democratic candidate that better matches your ideals. You seem to have such insight into the making of the ideal President, so you should be able to locate this individual quite easily. Good luck! Keep us posted.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I’m not a Trump guy, but it is almost comical the extent to which Trump seems to be burrowed deep into the psyches of the writers here, with rare exception. It’s as if each writer seeks to trump the last effort to impugn the man and interpret every action he takes in the worst possible light. Not too terribly in line with what the Heidelberg Catechism says about the ninth commandment. Seems to mirror a lot of the popular-level cultural conversation around the President. I had hoped for something better here; more distinctively reformed, or at least Christian. I wonder if some personal reflection on the part of the writers here might be in order. I think I need a vacation from hoping for better.

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    Tim – interesting that you read this as partisan, because it was intended ad hominem instead of party or policy. I don’t much feel like revealing my voting record, but I don’t identify as a Democrat. The man troubles me – what I perceive as character deficits. I believe reading could help – maybe a wild dream and foolish hope, but that is what I think.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    Amen to this Jeff. I agree with many of the books on your list particularly To Kill a Mockingbird and Pride & Prejudice along with several others. To it I would add the following:
    Advise & Consent
    1984
    Adam Bede
    The Year the Dream Died
    Bleak House (every book list should have something by Charles Dickens)
    American Scripture
    Churchill’s, History of the English Speaking Peoples AND his History of World War II
    Crime & Punishment
    A Monstrous Regiment of Women (this is a mystery, has some valuable lessons in it)
    Winnie the Pooh
    O Jerusalem: Voices of a Sacred City
    Les Miserables
    The Sound & Fury
    And finally anything by Mark Twain

  • Anneke says:

    Great post! Since you mentioned George Eliot, definitely Middlemarch! To help him understand that greatness is not the only valuable thing: so is goodness, and maybe more so than greatness. He also ought to read “Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture,” which was edited by Roxane Gay. Maybe that would give him an inkling of the gravity not only of sexual assault, but of the everyday harassment that women face.

  • Tony says:

    The list is of Great Literature, but where does Oprah and Kim became conflated into your proposal?

  • Nate Johnson says:

    A few days late on my part, but I’d add to the growing booklist Luke-Acts (especially concerning hospitality) and Psalm 72 (not long, so very readable 🙂

    As it happens, one president did read – and enjoy – one of the books you mentioned. Teddy Roosevelt had this to say:

    “My Dear Mr Grahame – My mind moves in ruts, as I suppose most minds do, and at first I could not reconcile myself to the change from the ever-delightful Harold and his associates, and so for some time I could not accept the toad, the mole, the water-rat and the badger as substitutes. But after a while Mrs Roosevelt and two of the boys, Kermit and Ted, all quite independently, got hold of The Wind Among the Willows and took such a delight in it that I began to feel that I might have to revise my judgment. Then Mrs Roosevelt read it aloud to the younger children, and I listened now and then. Now I have read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends; and I am almost more fond of it than of your previous books….I felt I must give myself the pleasure of telling you how much we all enjoyed your book. With all good wishes, Sincerely yours, Theodore Roosevelt”

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