Back what seems like years ago, when former President of the United States Barack Obama surprised Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he invited the Vice President to step up to the podium and give an off-the-cuff acceptance speech. Biden proceeded to, from memory, quote a line from Harry Truman, a lyric from Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and a passage from the Talmud. In the moment, it was a brief but stark reminder of what was about to leave the White House – an administration that valued literature, led by one of the biggest book worms the Oval Office has ever seen - and what was about to hurl itself in. The new occupant, to say the least, does not share the same passion.
Donald Trump doesn’t read books, and it’s not something he’s embarrassed about. When Megyn Kelly asked him during the campaign what the last book he read was, Trump responded “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.” The fact is, the words of other people don’t matter too much to him. In his 70-minute convention speech, Trump did not quote a single person other than himself, not even an out-of-context Bible verse or Reagan quip.
You don’t have to be on a CNN panel to recognize the world of differences between the 44th and 45th presidents. But perhaps the most telling is their personal relationship with literature. In a recent New York Times interview, Obama described in detail how important books are to him and how often during his presidency he took inspiration from what he was reading. It wasn’t just lip service, in the last eight years Obama has read and given praise to everything from Gone Girl, to the writings of Junot Diaz, and even a multi-volume Chinese sci-fi series called Three Body Problem.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare anybody’s reading habits with that of Obama’s, but Trump as a politician has shown an unprecedented lack of interest in reading. He told the Washington Post in the heat of his campaign that he’s never read a Presidential biography, but one day would like to. Trump repeated often that his favorite book was the Bible, yet has struggled to accurately quote a single passage. When first asked what his favorite Bible verse was, Trump said it was too personal of a question to answer, then later claimed his favorite verse was a Proverb that doesn’t quite exist, before finally settling on his favorite verse being “An eye for an eye” during a radio interview.
“By refusing to pick up a book, [Trump] sends a message that a new kind of attitude is running this country -- one that has never run it before and whose anti-intellectualism threatens the idealism of our founders.”
Of course, being a heavy reader doesn’t make you a good president. There have been plenty of presidents that weren’t intellectuals, but you’d be hard pressed to find a president who didn’t even like to crack open a book for pleasure every once in a while. According to Karl Rove, George W Bush would read upwards of 90 books a year during his presidency. Ronald Reagan was a lover of military fiction and forged a deep friendship with Tom Clancey. The most memorable founding fathers all had extensive personal libraries that they carefully cultivated. And the country’s most revered leader, Abraham Lincoln, was perhaps the most voracious reader the Oval Office has ever seen. The point is, a love of reading has always been an essential part of being an American president, and now that is no longer the case.
Even if you ignore what kind of monster you would have to be to say “an eye for an eye” is your favorite Bible verse, it is very troubling to imagine the consequences of a president who does not read. It’s even worse to imagine what it will be like to have a president who has no connection to history and those who have held the office before him. There’s no better way to know America than being on the Mississippi River with Mark Twain, or in New York City with F Scott Fitzgerald, or in Arkansas with Maya Angelou. To have a leader of the country not engaged with its literature betrays the vision of the country set out by the founders.
Just a few weeks into Trump’s term, and we have already begun to see what these consequences are. The New York Times reported Trump signed an Executive Order placing Steve Bannon on the National Security Council without understanding exactly what it was. Trump’s first authorized military raid led to disaster in Yemen, and some are pointing the finger at Trump for not taking the daily security briefings seriously enough.
“Books are part of the Great Conversation,” says David Kirby, poet and Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University. “They’re the talks we have with those who are different from us and who show us how big and diverse the world is. Trump’s got an entirely different agenda.” Those like David Kirby who devote their life to writing and teaching literature know the dangers of refusing to engage in that Great Conversation. “He certainly acts like somebody who doesn’t read. He has no attention span to speak of, he isn’t reflective, and he is contemptuous of everyone except himself; he doesn’t seem to like even his friends very much, and these aren’t literary qualities.”
Of course, we don’t know what kind of president Donald Trump will be yet, but by refusing to pick up a book, he sends a message that a new kind of attitude is running this country ― one that has never run it before and whose anti-intellectualism threatens the idealism of our founders. And if that doesn’t make you want to read a book, I don’t know what will.