FDR, Biden, Trump, and Presidents as Readers of Books

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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.

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