Reading all the press about George Bush's memoir reminds me of Karl Rove's claims a few years ago that he and Bush had been having a "book competition" for three years.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rove noted that he won each year, but the essay wasn't about his victory. It was all about how Bush "loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them."
This was a flashback for me to Bush's first term when his own staffers breathlessly informed America that President Bush "asks a lot of questions!" Of course, that was bull. Insiders leaving the Bush administration uniformly reported him as deeply incurious. And I myself knew a journalist who had spent lots of time with Bush in Texas who said the same thing. Do people like that read?
Well, maybe if motivated by a contest. Which was pretty embarrassing, since the the last time I competed with anyone about how many books we read, it was in fourth grade. I think I got a nifty certificate, signed by my peppy teacher.
So what kinds of books did Rove say his buddy read? Mostly history and biography, including works like Team of Rivals. And how many did he read a year? Ninety-five.
That makes about two a week. When I reviewed for a National Public Radio show and the Detroit Free Press as well as freelancing for the Washington Post, Jerusalem Report, and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, I read a minimum of two or three books a week week -- around the clock.
Did Bush really have that much time to read?
Of course, it's not impossible that Bush read the books Rove reported. After all, some were mysteries and they typically read fast. One was apparently a young adult book, ditto.
But did Bush learn anything from them? Did they affect his thinking? Did they change his world view? On the basis of his interviews and press conferences over eight years which all seemed pretty consistent, reading didn't seem to have much impact on the President.
Those books, including Team of Rivals, sure didn't show up in his conversation. You often can't stop talking about a book if you love it -- or even if you hated it. But at meetings of world leaders, the president was widely known to basically just ask about his colleagues' flights, and if they slept on the plane. That was about it for chatting. He never brought up books that he read, when that would have been a perfect opportunity, especially if his favorite topics are history and biography.
The saddest part of the whole story was that reading didn't sound remotely enjoyable or engaging as Karl Rove described it. Rove reported that "We kept track not just of books read, but also the number of pages and later the combined size of each book's pages -- its 'Total Lateral Area.' " So the number and size of pages apparently meant as much to Rove and Bush as what was on them. The reader as size queen. Wow.
You have to wonder if in tackling his own memoir, Bush picked a total lateral area and told his ghostwriter to shoot for that.
A version of this blog appeared on Bibliobuffet.com