By Jeff Munroe
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?