Barack & I Share Our Summer Reading Lists

The White House released a list of five books that Barack Obama will take with him on vacation this year. A couple of urban thrillers written by folks that worked on The Wire, the McCullough biography of John Adams, Tom Friedman’s book on the need for America to invest in green technology and a novel about life in rural Colorado by Kent Haruf.

How does that stack up with mine?

Fortress of Solitude–Jonathan Lethem
A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian–Marina Lewycka
Lord Jim–Joseph Conrad
Consider The Lobster–David Foster Wallace
Building a Bridge to the 18th Century–Neil Postman

I devoured “Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian” by Marina Lewycka in a day and a half of lakeside reading. A very funny and yet a disturbing meditation on the immigrant experience, as viewed through the prism of different generations. My favorite part–when a daughter confesses that she is disappointed that her father was not heroic in either WW2 or the post-war sorting of refugees, his comment is telling: “to survive is to win.” Yet, despite the rational/practical cast of mind of the older generation, the parents still exhibit more idealism about both the future and their past in Ukraine than their daughters, both raised in England, but pessimistic and lacking in all idealism.

I picked through the series of essays by David Foster Wallace like a chocolate assortment, over several days, even after returning from vacation. The meditation on the ethics of boiling lobsters alive (in the guise of a touristy piece for Gourmet magazine on the Maine Lobster Festival) is classic DFW: long, footnoted and totally unexpected. I can’t believe the yuppie/foodie mag actually printed the thing. My favorite essay was “Up, Simba”, writing about his experiences folowing the McCain campaign in 2000. DFW’s take was unhindered by any actual discussions with the candidate or his top staff and unpacks the chaos and inanity of typical press coverage of political campaigns. It is a nifty look at assessing a politician claims to leadership: “A real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

The only other book I’ve cracked is Postman’s book on how the 18th Century (well, actually the age of the Enlightenment–so it spans both 18th and 19th) asked the questions whose answers will allow us to more successfully navigate our way in the future; especially since the 20th century was such a rot of holocaust, war, nuclear nightmares and general travesty. I’ve only finished the opening chapter–on the contest between rationalist/scientific belief in human progress and its critique by the Romantics and their belief in self-directed inner progress. The best line: Denis Diderot, the editor of the first encyclopedia and his exclamation that “man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Promising.

I read half of my list and my vacation was only one week–half of Barack’s. I’m going to keep at it. I think my list is better–but then, Obama may be slightly more in need of some light reading than myself.

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