President Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

This is a wonderful interview with President Obama, in which he explains how books have shaped his day-to-day life in The White House. The transcript is here, and the broader piece by Michiko Kakutani summarizing her conversation is here. A highlight:

Like Lincoln, Mr. Obama taught himself how to write, and for him, too, words became a way to define himself, and to communicate his ideas and ideals to the world. In fact, there is a clear, shining line connecting Lincoln and King, and President Obama. In speeches like the ones delivered in Charleston and Selma, he has followed in their footsteps, putting his mastery of language in the service of a sweeping historical vision, which, like theirs, situates our current struggles with race and injustice in a historical continuum that traces how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. It’s a vision of America as an unfinished project — a continuing, more-than-two-century journey to make the promises of the Declaration of Independence real for everyone — rooted both in Scripture and the possibility of redemption, and a more existential belief that we can continually remake ourselves. And it’s a vision shared by the civil rights movement, which overcame obstacle after obstacle, and persevered in the face of daunting odds.

Mr. Obama’s long view of history and the optimism (combined with a stirring reminder of the hard work required by democracy) that he articulated in his farewell speech last week are part of a hard-won faith, grounded in his reading, in his knowledge of history (and its unexpected zigs and zags), and his embrace of artists like Shakespeare who saw the human situation entire: its follies, cruelties and mad blunders, but also its resilience, decencies and acts of grace. The playwright’s tragedies, he says, have been “foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.”

This was my favorite question and answer (especially the bolded part below):

Q: It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap —

Barack Obama: It bridges them. I struck up a friendship with [the novelist] Marilynne Robinson, who has become a good friend. And we’ve become sort of pen pals. I started reading her in Iowa, where “Gilead” and some of her best novels are set. And I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them — the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to — it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas and ended up journeying all the way to Hawaii, but whose foundation had been set in a very similar setting.

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… Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

On how books can be a solace after a tragedy:

Q: Is there some poem or any writing or author that you would turn to, say, after the mass killings in Newtown, Conn., or during the financial crisis?

Barack Obama: 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. During very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating. So sometimes you have to hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated. Churchill’s a good writer. And I loved reading Teddy Roosevelt’s writing. He’s this big, outsize character.

Worth reading in entirety. You will be missed, Mr. President.

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2 thoughts on “President Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

  1. No wonder, he is such a great person and speaker. Readers are quick, and their vocabulary is diverse, we don’t use “tremendous/big/huge” words constantly to make a point. #justsaying #shade

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