Sunday, November 02, 2008

Link-Mad Monday, Political Edition: The Book and the Candidate

I usually try to avoid overt politicizing around here, but it's the moment where everyone can be forgiven for announcing their endorsement, just once. It probably comes as no surprise that I, like many of my fellow progressive-minded indie booksellers, support Barack Obama for president in the election tomorrow. There are lots of reasons why -- I agree with the man's policies and actions (for the most part), and he's an optimist and an idealist, as well as practical about what needs to be done -- obviously I admire that.

I want to propose another reason for voting for Obama, though, appropriate to this venue: he's a man of the book. Hence today's link madness...

First, of course, he wrote a book, then another, that have been on the bestseller lists for many months, making him a friend to bookstores everywhere. I'll admit I've only read bits and pieces, but I've heard his speeches, and the man can write.

As the New Yorker recently pointed out, some Republicans have chosen Obama's skill with words as something to criticize -- equating eloquence and articulation with the opposite of action. Obviously this makes no sense -- some of our best and most decisive presidents have also been the most eloquent (Gettysburg Address? "Nothing to fear but fear itself?" Anyone?)


Then back in May, there was a flurry of excitement among litbloggers (and the publisher W. W. Norton) about this fantastic picture from the Times, which looks like it could have been a glossy book ad in a magazine. He's holding Fareed Zakaria's challenging and thoughtful work The Post-American World -- and the best part is, he's got his finger in it to hold his place. As we book nerds know, that's usually a sign you're really hoping all of these nice people will let you get back to reading before you lose the thread.


And then there's the bit about Sarah Palin maybe, kinda, asking/suggesting the idea of censoring books in the Wasilla, Alaska library. The NY Times has the extent of what's provable in all that, which is not much. But some librarians took it pretty seriously.

More recently, the San Francisco Chronicle looked at the books the candidates have said are their favorites, and asked local authors to opine on what those choices mean. Obama chose Melville's Moby-Dick, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, and Emerson's Self Reliance; McCain's choices here are For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. My favorite comment is from Daniel Handler, who's also one of my favorite authors:

All of us polish those lists for public view, and you can't get more public than running for president. But these lists do tell us something, even if it's not the truth.

Obama's list says that he'd like to convey a willingness to face heartbreak and irony, that he's open to the new and to the experimental, but that he's serious of purpose and true of heart.

McCain's list says that sure, he reads books, but he's not a pansy boy.


Actually, both candidates have expressed admiration for Hemingway's novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom The Bell Tolls, as David Margolick discusses in the New York Times. It's one of my favorite Hemingway novels as well, and it's interesting that the admired hero Robert is, uh, a socialist. Because he's an author, not an idealogue, Hemingway takes the specific circumstances of that war and makes them into a universal meditation on ideals and self-sacrifice and disillusionment and what's really worth fighting for (and being tough and making earth-moving love to boyish, vulnerable women, okay sure). But it is telling what the actual members of the idealistic Abraham Lincoln Brigade who went to Spain think:

The few veterans of that fight still alive remain unapologetically to the left; Mr. McCain won’t find many votes among them. “He’s the very antithesis of what we stood for,” said Mark Billings, a mechanic during the Spanish Civil War who now lives in El Cerrito, Calif. (He says he is only guardedly optimistic about Mr. Obama.)

There's lots more, of course: Laura Miller in Salon has a long piece analyzing Obama through his reading, and his influences range far and wide. To me, the point of that article, and the point of Obama as a book person, is what much serious reading does to one's perspective. Obama values clarity, but he also admits and respects nuance, and even ambiguity. He puts great stock in empathy: imagining yourself in the other person's shoes, which is what good fiction allows. And he's absorbed philosophers of an idealistic pragmatism: you have to give good to get good back.

Anyway, my own articulateness is at an ebb this morning, but I hope you get the point. I'm off to put my words into action and do a couple of hours at the Brooklyn phone bank.

UPDATE: One last addition: I just discovered Jon Meacham's essay in the Times about what we can learn about the presidents (and candidates) from their reading, which discusses Hemingway and the tragic/hopeful sensibility, among other things. Fascinating stuff.