Tuesday, November 25, 2003
I have no idea if these are President Clinton's 21 favorite books, and I don't agree that it's a purely political concoction, per Terry Teachout. It's a bit too weird for that.
I'm most inclined to believe that Becker spoke deeply to Clinton, and I don't mean that as a compliment. I suspect he genuinely enjoyed the Garcia Marquez, Thomas Wolfe, Bill Styron, Ralph Ellison. I'm not at all surprised he greatly admired Taylor Branch's book; Branch is an old friend, and Civil Rights is the glorious crusade Clinton wants to be associated with by virtue of his baby-boomerdom.
I haven't read the Lincoln biography, but Presidents are supposed to read about prior Presidents, and I should think a "human" treatment of Lincoln would particularly appeal to Clinton. (Everyone should be moved by Lincoln, but I imagine different people would prefer different Lincolns. John McCain's Lincoln, I imagine, is rather different from Clinton's. I myself was very moved by Alan Guelzo's book, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, a "spiritual" biography; that tells you more about me than it does about Lincoln.)
Other books (Angelou's autobiography, Hillary's campaign-feeler coffee table job) require no comment.
Then there are the books that raise an eyebrow of suspicion. Marcus Aurelius? That doesn't sound like Clinton, a man of notorious indiscipline. The Four Quartets? Eliot? Really? That can hardly be Clinton trying to sound intellectual; Eliot is so 1955. It's almost quaint to think of him thinking back to a college-era experience of Literature with a capital "L" - that's the only way I can explain it.
Other books strike me as ephemeral; they are books Clinton read recently, and so remembers vividly, though I doubt they will be among his favorites for a decade.
Then there's Homage to Catalonia, a particularly interesting choice as Teachout notes. The book had a profound impact on me (I read it in college, as part of a seminar on the Spanish Civil War), but Orwell has something for just about everyone (everyone intelligent, at least). It takes a particular sort of writer to earn the admiration of a reactionary like John Derbyshire (who loves quoting Muggeridge on Orwell: "he loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future"), an iconoclastic Enlightenment crusader like Christopher Hitchens (who wrote a whole book about Why Orwell Matters), and a (rhetorical) bomb-throwing anti-American radical like Noam Chomsky (who drew heavily on Orwell's account in Homage in his essay, "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" from American Power and the New Mandarins). So I don't know how much we learn about Clinton from the fact that he claims Homage as one of his favorite books, other than it means he's smart and well-read, which we already knew. I'd be very interested to know why that book is among his favorites, though, what it meant to him, when it meant that to him, etc.