The Reader in the Oval Office

Now that Barack Obama has confounded us all by performing almost exactly as the polls said he would, I'm wondering what the effect will be of having a president who reads literary fiction. The president-elect's favorite authors are said to include Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow and Philip Roth: an interesting lineup of American outsiders, in that Morrison is black, Doctorow and Roth are Jewish, and several of Melville's books are charged with homoeroticism. But I'm less fascinated by the identities of the novelists Obama has read than by the fact that he bothers with literary fiction at all. Most readers of literary fiction are women, with male readers preferring histories, policy-wonk tomes, business books and thrillers (such as the James Bond novels favored by President Kennedy).


Who makes the cut on Barack Obama's reading list? (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

This disparity has always puzzled me. Once you've crossed over into the happy land of habitual readership, why would you avoid serious fiction? The most frequently heard "manly" objection is that made-up stuff is a waste of time, that you don't learn anything from it -- or at least nothing practical, in the way that reading a work of history helps you understand how we got to where we are today, or that reading a motivational book helps you sell more widgets.

But fiction is full of characters whose portraits are the end products of sharp observation and meticulous wordsmithery by smart people who have trained themselves to take stock of their fellow men and women. A person who reads Dickens and Trollope, to name two of my favorites, gets to know kinds of people and become familiar with character traits that she might never come into contact with in real life (few of us will go a-whaling anymore or have much chance of hobnobbing with MP's).

In my own case, I understood a feckless uncle of mine much better after reading David Copperfield, whose Mr. Micawber helped me realize how Uncle Charles could be so unruffled by his own economic underachievement. There are lots more things to be said on behalf of literary fiction (for one thing, great novelists tend to be the best of all prose stylists), but I will take my stand on this one: Making the acquaintance of memorable fictional characters extends one's knowledge of the human species.

So it's quite possible that President Obama's reading habits will stand him in good stead when he sits down to negotiate at a summit meeting, and what could be more practical than that?

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Ron Charles |  November 7, 2008; 10:09 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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I am always astounded by the fact that many men don't appreciate literary fiction. I am a man who appreciates both fiction and non-fiction. Bernard DeVoto is a favorite historian/essayist of mine whose prose is beautiful and learned. However, I find I learn as much or more from the stunning stories of Wallace Stegner. Both men compliment each other and are essential to my emotional and intellectual life.

Posted by: mbartley | November 10, 2008 7:40 PM

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