My brother Jonathan recently alerted me to a Huffington Post article by Houston Barber about “What Happens When a President Doesn’t Like To Read?” The article gives me an excuse to revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s “Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.”
I wrote about Nussbaum’s essay this past election day because she believes that good readers make good voters. As she sees it, literary training is key to a stable democracy:
But the great contribution literature has to make to the life of the citizen is its ability to wrest from our frequently obtuse and blunted imaginations an acknowledgement of those who are other than ourselves, both in concrete circumstances and even in thought and emotion. As [Ralph] Ellison put it, a work of fiction may contribute “to defeat this national tendency to deny the common humanity shared by my character and those who might happen to read of his experience.” This contribution makes it a key element in higher education.
Barber points out that Trump is not only uninterested in reading but he’s proud of his disinterest:
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.
Echoing Nussbaum, Barber then lays out some of the specific benefits a president gets from reading, above all establishing “a 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.
Barber quotes an English professor making a similar point:
“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.”
I wanted Barber to get a bit more specific about the ramifications of having a non-reader in the White House, but this blog will have many opportunities to do so in the years ahead. Today I’ll just note that the difference between Barack Obama’s vision of America and Trump’s is the difference between one who loves to read and one who doesn’t. For Obama, described by Barber as “one of the biggest book worms the Oval Office has ever seen,” America is a rich tapestry of people and traditions, “e pluribus unum.” Nussbaum says that emphasizing literature is helping turn the academy into such a place as well:
We are now trying to build an academy that will overcome defects of vision and receptivity that marred the humanities departments of earlier eras, an academy in which no group will be invisible in Ellison’s sense. That is in its way a radical political agenda; it is always radical, in any society, to insist on the equal worth of all human beings, and people find all sorts of ways to avoid the claim of that ideal, much though they may pay it lip service. The current agenda is radical in the way that Stoic world citizenship was radical in a Rome built on hierarchy and rank, in the way that the Christian idea of love of one’s neighbor was and is radical. In a world anxious to deny our common membership in the kingdom of ends or the kingdom of heaven, we should defend that radical agenda as the only one worthy of our conception of democracy and worthy of guiding its future.
The alternative is a vision where entire segments of the American population are reduced to pernicious caricatures: Obama as an African outsider, Latinos as rapists and murderers, Muslims as terrorists, women as beauty ratings, inner cities as hellholes. Trump’s inner narrative is as shallow as it gets.