Thursday, December 22, 2016

Farewell to a friend of books

San Francisco Chronicle book editor John McMurtrie has a thoughtful tribute to President Obama's advocacy for reading and learning:

President Obama reads “
’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to students at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, Va., in December 2010. Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

“When I am king, they shall not have bread and shelter only, but also teachings out of books; for a full belly is little worth where the mind is starved ... for learning softeneth the heart and breedeth gentleness and charity.”

— Mark Twain, “The Prince and the Pauper”

Eight years ago, in these pages, the author Ishmael Reed wrote an essay about “a Celtic African American with a golden tongue and a golden pen” who was poised to assume the highest office in the land. Barack Obama, Reed posited, had the makings of a great literary president.

“Books can make you better,” Reed wrote. “Obama knows this and will perhaps help lead the nation back to literacy.”

So how did President Obama fare? And what will change under the new administration?

Even if you didn’t vote for the man and disliked his policies — even if you happened to buy into the race-baiting fabrication that he wasn’t born in this country, that he was somehow constitutionally unfit for his job — one cannot dispute that the president has been an exemplary ambassador for literature, a leader who has championed reading as a way to open our eyes to the world, to nurture understanding, to see ourselves in others.

This was abundantly clear in a conversation Obama conducted with the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson that appeared last year in the New York Review of Books. Marvel at that for a moment: The president of the United States interviewed a deep-thinking author for a lengthy, two-part piece that was published in one of the nation’s most highly respected literary magazines.

“When I think about how I understand my role as citizen,” Obama said, “setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels.

“It has to do with empathy,” he continued. “It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.”

In countless ways, over his two terms, the president has endeavored to impart his passion for this power of books.

He has made routine outings to bookstores with his daughters, sharing summer reading lists that show a breadth of interests, from William Finnegan’s and Helen Macdonald’s inspired memoirs “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” and “H Is for Hawk,” to Colson Whitehead’s genre-busting novel “The Underground Railroad” and Neal Stephenson’s 880-page science fiction epic “Seveneves.”

Among the Presidential Medals of Freedom he has given out — more than any of his predecessors — Obama has recognized the authors Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Gloria Steinem. He has also awarded the National Medal of Arts to Sandra Cisneros, Rita Dove, Maxine Hong Kingston, Harper Lee, Tobias Wolff and many others.

Earlier this year, the president nominated Carla Hayden as the 14th Librarian of Congress — she’s the first woman and first African American to lead the library.

Last year, Obama announced two book-related initiatives: one in which publishing houses offer $250 million in free e-books — roughly 10,000 titles — to low-income students, and the other to provide library cards to all students in the country.

Along with the first lady, the president has embraced his job as reader-in-chief with gusto, regularly giving impassioned readings to children of such favorites as Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Obama has spoken about the importance of early-childhood reading for years. In a speech to the American Library Association in 2005, he said, “In a world where knowledge truly is power and literacy is the skill that unlocks the gates of opportunity and success, we all have a responsibility as parents and librarians, educators and citizens, to instill in our children a love of reading so that we can give them the chance to fulfill their dreams.”

He attributes his early love of books to his mother.

“As much trouble as I got into as an adolescent, she would constantly send me books,” he said. “That’s what I got every birthday. I was holding out for the basketball or the bike. And I’d get these big stacks of books. I’d be disappointed initially, but she knew that eventually I’d end up picking them up and reading them. That, I think, really laid the foundation for my subsequent success.”

Some would argue that bestowing awards on writers and reading to children is pro-forma stuff, easily done for the good publicity. But as with his interview with Robinson, the president has often gone out of his way to sing the praises of books in heartfelt terms. After Muhammad Ali died in June, for instance, Obama eulogized the champ in a video in which he leafed through his own copy of the enormous book “GOAT (Greatest of All Time): A Tribute to Muhammad Ali.”

Obama is not simply bookish. He is also, of course, an author in his own right. “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope,” the memoirs he wrote before he was president, are uncommonly thoughtful, for a politician, and touched a chord with many Americans. Soon after he leaves office, Obama — and not a ghostwriter — likely will write one of the most anticipated post-presidential memoirs ever.

As is amply manifest in his writing, Obama is someone who has done a lot of thinking about his place in the world, his upbringing, his uniquely American story. And, as president, he has proved himself to be just as reflective, viewing the world, as he says, in shades of gray, with nuance — qualities enhanced by a lifetime of reading.

President Obama, in sum, is a cultivated and self-made man who has striven to bring out the best in his country, holding it forth as an enlightened beacon to the rest of the world — much as John F. Kennedy did in a similarly youthful and aspirational administration — by celebrating its many artists, writers prominent among them...

McMurtrie undermines his case by launching into an attack on the President-elect. That would have been better saved for another time. Completists, the whole thing is here.

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