National Public Radio had a nice piece this morning on Barack Obama as our Reader in Chief, which picks up tangentially on my observations of a couple of weeks ago regarding Bush as a reader or non-reader:
At this year’s National Book Awards, held just weeks after the presidential election, there was a palpable excitement about the prospect of Barack Obama’s presidency. Actor and playwright Eric Begosian, the evening’s emcee, articulated what was on the minds of many:
“It’s great news for Democrats,” he said. “It’s great news for African-Americans. But I think it is also great news for everyone here tonight because our new president is, in the broadest sense of the word, a reader.”
“It’s not so much that reading has been absent in the White House in recent years — First Lady and one-time librarian Laura Bush is a voracious reader, and in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove revealed that President Bush finished 40 books last year and 95 books in 2006.
“But Harold Augenbraum, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, says the book world sees something different in Obama because he’s the author of two best-sellers: “You actually have both a writer and a reader in the White House who is articulate and eloquent in his own right.”
I remain bemused about the definition of the reader. What is a reader? The OED gives us the following common sensical definition: ” A person who reads written matter; a person who is able to read.” On the other hand, worth noting that this is only the second definition. The first and most ancient definition is more mysterious: “An expounder or interpreter of dreams,
occult signs, etc.”
I’m not sure if this gets at why we’re willing to grant Obama the status of being Reader-in-Chief while we remain mostly surprised that Bush reads at all, and somehow can’t really believe it. Perhaps we only give Bush credit for being a decipherer or decoder, whereas Obama is an interpreter of dreams. It’s surely the case that when we say “She’s a reader,” we are at least indicating not so much the fact that a person reads or even necessarily that they read a lot (though there’s probably some quantity that’s involved). It’s a qualitative disposition, a way of approaching texts and the role of texts in a life that we’re looking for.
I’m not sure if I go with the story’s designation of Obama as the new Oprah, but I am intrigued about our societal need for celebrity endorsement for our activities. Somehow Oprah’s endorement, or Obama’s, gives us a sense of belonging to a tribe, of being a part of something larger, rather than remaining isolated with the text. I suspect that somehow this longing to belong has always been attendent to being a part of the tribe of readers, but now we process it primarily through celebrity, perhaps. (Though, it is the case that in the past authors often were celebrities of a sort–Dickens, Twain. Even T.S. Eliot spoke to an arena of 20,000 people. This goes on at least until the sixties and the cults of celebrity that followed the Beats, and figures like James Baldwin and the youthful Norman Mailer. Now, however readers are celbrities, or rather, we need celebrities to be readers to give us an excuse for reading.)