So a few days ago I did one of my “is this thing on?” bad-standup bits on Twitter — an early-Larry-David clear-the-house thing, the kind of thread only I think is funny — goofing on a notion, widely shared in the middlebrow literary culture that produced me, that U.S. presidents should be devoted readers of books.
The rant was inspired by the Times’s piece “What Books Should Biden Read? We Asked 22 [!] Writers,” though by “22 Writers,” I think they meant “22 authors of books.” David Frum and Madeleine Albright, who have professions other than Writer, were among the contributors, and the piece is just the kind of pretentious device that I spend my life working against, not only as a citizen of a country with serious problems that need addressing, in part via the presidency, but also as 1 Writer, of many things, including books, with a difficult relationship to the literary culture of my time.
By “difficult relationship,” I mean something like this. I can’t really be expected to believe that Yascha Mounk really thinks that “as Joe Biden sets out to combat a different set of injustices, [John Stuart Mill’s ‘The Subjection of Women’] can help point his way toward a vision that shows how much we all stand to gain from a more just society — especially if we emphasize how that future will allow us to focus on the affections and aspirations we share, not the petty interests and narrow identities that divide us.” I think I’m forced to conclude, just from the heavy-breathing sentence structure, that Mounk is trying to say a number of things not about Biden, or even about Mill, but about himself, which would be fine, if whatever it is he’s trying so hard to say were simply said, instead of clumsily embedded in a fake recommendation.
That mood of seriousness — or “seriousness,” as Susan Sontag once put it — drags the whole piece down, as signaled by the fact that every one of the 22 Writers recommends a nonfiction book. That makes the enterprise nakedly unserious, to me.
So my jokes in the ranting Twitter thread — or “jokes,” in the young-Larry-David meta way — had, like a lot of other jokes and “jokes,” a sincere motivation. I knew when I said “I don’t care what books a president reads or doesn’t read — I don’t care if presidents read books at all,” that I might draw more irritated bewilderment than laughs, but even had my crack succeeded in being funny, it would have been “funny cuz it’s true!” because the point is not that I don’t care, but that I wish nobody else did either. I think these tropings by the book-oriented, middlebrow intelligentsia, regarding the presidency, and regarding books, represent a problem both cultural and political.
These are the people who think of their values as the antidote to Trumpist anti-intellectualism. I think they’ve helped get us where we are now.
The problem I’m talking about has developed in the context of — actually tracks pretty directly with — the decline of the book, as a primary vehicle for conveying knowledge and telling stories. It also tracks with a decline of nuance, in modes of thought prevailing in the middlebrow intelligentsia, regarding the nature of the presidency but also regarding. . . books! Before JFK, as I learned from this much more interesting 2006 Times article, people didn’t much care what presidents supposedly read. The ideal of a president as a kind of lifelong student and part-time intellectual got connected with the hero-worshipping mode that became Camelot, conjured largely by Jacqueline Kennedy and shored up mainly after the JFK assassination. For one brief shining moment, and even as classical music was diminishing in mainstream musical culture, Pablo Casals had been at the White House.
I sniff royalist snobbism in the whole enterprise of aestheticizing the presidency that way. Trump’s fans think the president is supposed to have a gold-plated toilet seat. Other kinds of fans think the president is supposed to read books, and also, unlike Trump, to have dogs. In England, the Prime Minister might have dogs, but nobody cares about them. The Queen, though. She has Dogs.
An irony of the JFK White House high-culture thing was that it was made for low-culture: TV. That was TV’s first significant connection with national politics, which has now reached an apex with Trump. Before TV, more people took the presence of books for granted; on the other hand, fewer intellectual types saw the president as a screen for projecting fantasies regarding their own embattled bookishness. Some presidents were big readers, naturally enough; some weren’t, naturally enough too. Being a good president, in the varying opinions of the public, didn’t map to that trait.
Anyway, that’s some of how I look at it. But in a by-the-book case of irony, my bad-comedy Twitter effort to stomp down fetishizing both the book and the presidency had the opposite effect. Because FDR is the president I admire most, I made some cracks specifically about him: you didn’t catch him sitting around reading books; he never read a book, except maybe a murder mystery, and he didn’t even finish those; etc. In response, a small effort was galvanized on Twitter to prove me wrong about FDR, framing him as just the kind of devoted reader of books that the kind of people who think presidents should be devoted readers of books think presidents should be. A larger purport, I guess, was to show that I’m also wrong about the whole issue of presidents and book reading.
Any impression of FDR as a presidential reader of the kind approved and endorsed by people who pretend to recommend books to Joe Biden, and who enjoy reading such recommendations, flies in the face of observations made at the time by many of FDR’s contemporaries regarding his activities both in the White House and on presidential vacations, as duly noted in many biographies, from the not-so-good to the more-or-less OK, which is all such biographies can be. The impression is also contradicted by Henry Graff, professor emeritus of history at Columbia, quoted in the Times article linked above. ”I don’t know if most presidents spent their time reading,” Graff says. “Grover Cleveland didn’t read even after he became a trustee of Princeton. A curator of the FDR Library told me that Roosevelt collected books, but he didn’t read them.”
And while you’ll rarely catch me citing Michael Beschloss, a lot of the people who think presidents should read books do cite him, and he was one of the 22 Writers asked to recommend books to Biden. According to Beschloss, “Two of the 20th century’s most commanding presidents — Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson — exercised strong leadership without being much more than casual students or readers.” Beschloss also notes FDR’s “short attention span.”
They could all be wrong. Maybe FDR really did enter the presidency a committed reader of books, both deep and wide-ranging, in the way those who want presidents to be book readers endorse. Maybe he really did improve the rare hours of presidential downtime with recourse to works like those supposedly recommended to Biden.
But from the way the response was handled on Twitter, I get the feeling I was right. In the effort to show that I was wrong, Paul M. Sparrow, Director of the FDR Library and Museum, was quickly tagged in. Evidently this is a different person from the curator there who told Professor Graff that FDR didn’t read, because Sparrow produced a Twitter thread noting the impressive size of FDR’s book collection; the fact that FDR began collecting books as a kid; his well-known fascination with all things naval, including naval history and naval books in general; the related collections of maps and naval pictures and ship models; the related collections of stamps; the related interest in ornithology. The details about the book collection were interesting (as I felt required to acknowledge on Twitter). I knew FDR was a maniacal collector, had a taxonomic mind, had huge amounts of money to spend on acquiring stuff, and had a book collection. I didn’t know his book collection was that big.
But come on.
I might note that my original point had to do with our wanting presidents to be book readers, and deeming book reading a key component of doing the job well. So even if it really could be shown, contrary to my understanding of his life and presidency — based mainly on reading books — that FDR really was a presidential reader of books, as Joe Biden is now pressured to be, as pretext for a dopey Times article, I would still construe FDR’s reading as inessential to the presidency. Sparrow goes the other way, though, claiming that immersion in naval paraphernalia made FDR a great commander-in-chief in WWII. I think it’s widely understood that FDR’s success as a wartime president had to do with a talent for appointing and delegating, not with any hands-on employment of strategy and tactics drawn from the naval obsession. That’s a good example of decoupling hobbyism from execution of office. So I might concede the point about FDR as a lifelong devoted reader while defending my original point.
But I need to stick for a moment with this image of FDR as a lifelong devoted reader, because the tone both of the Sparrow thread, and of some of the responses to it, had a kind of slam-dunk quality. Take that, all you who call FDR not a prime example of a presidential reader of books, the kind of president we need so badly after Trump!
Sparrow’s presentation itself exposes the fantastical nature of the image it tries to conjure.
As anybody acquainted with the history of books knows, voracious book collecting in no way equates with voracious book reading. The anybody who knows that has to include many of the people offended by my calling FDR not a book reader, and would certainly include the Director of the FDR Library. Sparrow frames FDR’s book reading, revealingly to me, in the context of collections, pictures, taxonomies, models, etc.; he also blends it with reading newspapers. So, yes: dude had his hobbies (and he read the news, obviously!), but the fact that the book collecting began in childhood is supportive of nothing, especially nothing along the lines of “we need presidents to be book readers”: FDR probably did do a fair amount of reading in childhood. The Times article isn’t recommending that Joe Biden revisit Harold and the Purple Crayon or Treasure Island or the Hardy Boys; I would have greater respect for it if it did. “We need a president who reads books” is a dream of presidential immersion in whatever recently published or classic “serious” book each recommender wants to signal a knowledge of. That wasn’t FDR. And nobody, I now gather, really thinks it was, including the Director of the FDR Library and Museum.
And yes, of course I do know that FDR may have actually read some of the books he collected, or some parts of them, at some point. I also know about his early glowing review of the egregious Claude Bowers’s book on Jefferson, which somewhere on Twitter I mistakenly called a book on Lincoln (I have an essay in mind on FDR, Lincoln, and Jefferson, with Bowers as a pivot). That’s the only book review FDR wrote, and it does suggest he read that book, at least. I hope it does, anyway.
The important thing — the thing that points to the problem underlying how the “we need bookish presidents” people think — is that the outsized scale of the book collection actually undermines the “avid reader” thing. Evidently FDR had 300 nice Bibles. Clearly nobody thinks he was reading them, one after the other, from cover to cover; he liked owning them, and looking at them, and showing them to like-minded connoisseurs, the way he did with his stamps, and God bless. “Many rare first editions” is a giveaway too. Nobody standing agape in the Morgan Library can possibly think old J.P. spent a lot of time in there, reading book after book because spending time reading books was key to being a good robber baron. J.P. had things to do. So do presidents. That used to be a norm.
Morgan’s collecting is a leading example of something FDR and many others took part in. The dawn of the screen age and the cheap-book age saw a fancy-book revival, with many rich people of the late 19th and early 20th centuries owning lots of nice editions of books and manuscripts, snapping them up by the trunkload all over the world. Hence the book as modern fetish item. When books had really been rare, people treated the physical book, the object, as highly valuable in itself, because it was, and in highly practical terms: you couldn’t avail yourself of the content if anything happened to the book. When printed books became common and inexpensive—that was a truly wonderful late-19th- and 20th-century revolution, which made readers of many of us—certain people wanted to reclaim the past and reify the artfulness of the printer’s art. The book-collecting mania was a revivalist fantasy, like plundering the marble ceilings of Europe and installing them at Newport. None of that has anything to do with being a habitual reader, especially a presidential habitual reader. The presidents who in the past fifty years or so really have been avid readers of books are far more likely to have been reading dogeared paperbacks than kvelling over beautifully designed rare editions.
It’s hard, because now we have a president who, far from going more-intellectual-than-thou, with fake citations of supposedly favorite great books, has made a point of being a vulgarian idiot. But a person who acquired a big bunch of nice editions really can’t be what people mean mean when they yearn for presidents who are book readers, by which they mean presidents smart and informed, with a capacity for multifaceted perspective. This confusion is reflected in one of the responses to Sparrow’s thread, a tweet directed at me, whose purport I’ll paraphrase here as “who are you going to believe, a bunch of bozo biographers referring to people who knew FDR, or the august Director of the FDR Library and Museum?”
You don’t get a mic drop on that one. No disrespect to Paul Sparrow — and certainly no excessive respect to biographers, or even eyewitnesses — but the whole presidential-library phenomenon, as well as any kneejerk according of authority to its keepers, is a reflection of the problem I’m trying to point to: the enshrinement of the presidency as a cultural and intellectual phenomenon (in my experience, this problem also affects how history is carried out at other presidential sites like Mount Vernon). A presidential library has nothing essential to do with the office of the presidency. The presidential-library tradition didn’t even begin until 1939 — with FDR! — and the views of those committed to it are naturally subject to their own biases.
Sparrow opened his thread by quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes on FDR: “A second-class intellect. But a first-class temperament.” I think OWH was engaging in patronizing bullshit. I too may be accused of hero worship, because while I’m critical of his presidency, and of how it distorted our idea of the presidency in all the ways I’m talking about, I see FDR as smarter than Holmes, Walter Lippmann (he too underrated FDR’s intelligence), and a lot of other brainiacs put together. The error that a lot of book-reading people make is associating intelligence with reading books. FDR didn’t make that error. He was a book.