AN ASS LOOKING OUT OF A MIRROR
Politicians as Bibliophiles (2006)
"A book is like a mirror: If an ass looks in, you can't
expect an apostle to look out." -- GC Lichtenberg.
One of my favourite anecdotes about books and reading
involves Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone. Some years
back, a magazine writer interviewing Stallone reported that
his home library consisted of a multivolume, leather-bound
edition of literary classics. All pristeen, seemingly
untouched. At one end of one shelf sat a well-thumbed copy
of "Mr. T: An Autobiography."
I was reminded of this anecdote a few weeks ago, when US
press secretary Tony Snow announced that President Bush was
relaxing this summer with Albert Camus’ "The Stranger." The
White House flak topped this revelation by adding, "I don’t
want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for THAT
discussion. Imagine a chinwag about European philosophy
between a former guest host of The Rush Limbaugh Show and a
world leader who consistently pronounces "nuclear" as
"nookaler." (The last time Americans heard of Bush reading
anything, it was a children’s story about a goat, a slim
volume that functioned as a Presidential prop in a Florida
classroom, as things went haywire elsewhere.)
The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart got some mileage out of
Dubya’s dubious summer reading. He informed viewers who’ve
never read The Stranger that "it's a classic novel about a
Westerner who kills an Arab for no good reason and dies
with no remorse."
A good line, but adult literacy is a serious thing. For I
believe inside every aging, incurious fratboy there’s a
child with a library card trying to get out. I put the
president’s current lack of interest in serious reading on
the doorstop of his fearsome mom, Barbara Bush, who
undoubtebly failed to supply the budding shrub with worthy
reading material. According to family biographer Kitty
Kelley, a writer for The New Yorker who once visited the
family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, tried to find
something to read late at night. "After investigating the
entire mansion, he found one book: The Fart Book.''
Then again, why bother with egghead stuff like books when
the world is your oil well?
Contrast the Bush reading record with that of former
president Bill Clinton. For the opening of his presidential
library, he listed as his favorite books the "Meditations"
by Marcus Aurelius, "The Four Quartets," by T.S. Eliot,
"The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats," and Maxim’s "Ten Years
of Hot Babes." It’s up for debate whether Clinton, a serial
fabricator, read any or all of these tomes all the way
through — with the exception of the last one (which I added
for fun, of course). In fact, with most political memoirs
penned by ghost writers these days, it’s an open question
whether Slick Willy has even read his OWN book all the way
to the end.
When it comes to recommended authors and gaseous emissions,
special mention goes to our very own premier Gordon
Campbell. Last year, Internet surfers discovered a BC
government web site, www.readonbc.ca, containing a list of
the premier’s reading recommendatioi\ns, among them Ronald
Wright's Massey Lecture, A Short History of Progress. The
book details what the author calls "progress traps," which
result from civilizations laying waste to the natural
resources and ecosystems that underlie economic systems. In
his review of the book, Campbell approvingly quotes the
following passage: "The human inability to foresee, or to
watch out for long range consequences may be inherent to
our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived
from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering. It may also be
little more than a mix of inertia, greed and foolishness
encouraged by the shape of our social pyramid."
Considering what the premier hasn’t done for the
environment during his tenure, his eager recommendation of
Wright’s eco-apocalyptic rant reads as either disingenuous
or doublethink. Even the author expressed surprise, writing
in the Globe and
Mail that the
ancient eco-disasters described in his book share a lot in
common with current events in BC. Wright reported he was "
delighted that Mr. Campbell and I seem to agree on the
importance of the environment and social justice. But after
seeing the ecological carnage on his watch, I find it hard
to believe that he and his colleagues are about to change."
Whoa. You know you’re having a bad day when an author
publicly lambastes you for recommending his or her book.
Perhaps it’s safer for politicians and other high profile
readers to strike living authors entirely from their
recommendation list; dead men tale no tales and all that.
Who knows, this may even open up a new alternative energy
source, using dead white males for turbine power. I’m sure
with the recent endorsement of existentialism from the
White House, Camus’s corpse got up past 5000 rpm’s.