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Much has been made this week of Barack Obama’s holiday reading list, which delivers a big, fist-pumping, ‘Yes we can,’ to those who think there’s only enough time to read a couple of books on the family hols. It makes me a little jealous. I tend to spend my days burning my eyes out in front of a monitor, while a guy like Obama gets through shelves and shelves of a library and still finds time to shoot some hoops. All the same, I’m a massive fan of his, and if anybody can plough through that much reading, Obama can.
Still it makes me wonder about the relationship between an author and his/her readers. How would you feel if that was your novel in the President’s holiday suitcase? It’s like having an audience with the leader of the free world, only in retrospect, because you’ve already said everything you’re allowed to say, and at the time of writing you didn’t even know if you were saying it to anyone other than yourself. I wonder if the authors of those books, on finding out Obama’s reading them, wish they’d put in a few persuasive thoughts on foreign policy, or found time in one chapter to champion or rebuke healthcare reform.
Fiction is a weird mixture of truth and lies that can bypass most of the defences we have against such things. Fiction’s all made up, all a lot of conjecture, but you hope that at its heart it has some truth to impart—not necessarily in a journalistic sense, but perhaps in an emotive or expressionistic one. This bunch of authors are going to have the President spinning their lies and truths to himself, in the private insides of his head. Maybe some of what he reads will alter, even if it’s only in miniscule ways, his perspective on the world. Maybe those infinitesimal alterations will affect his future decision making in some small way.
At the opposite end of the spectrum there are the books the bad guys read. Apparently Hitler loved Gulliver’s Travels. I can’t imagine that the conscientious Jonathan Swift, if someone whisked back through time to tell him, would have been delighted to have Adolf as a fan. If that were somehow possible, might he have worked to make his satire even more biting? Take Gulliver to an island reminiscent of the Nazi state to try to pre-empt events, to show Hitler the awful impact of his actions? Or might he have torn up the whole lot in disgust, appalled that his thoughts were going to end up placed in one of the most heinous minds the world has ever known? Obviously this is far-fetched speculation, but the relationship remains between the book and the reader, and the point is that the actual author has little sway over his work once his words have left his pen/typewriter/word processor.
I love it that Obama has the ambition of reading so much. Some say it’s a reading list concocted by a spin doctor. Perhaps. And who knows whether any of it will seriously impact on anything he thinks or does? Yet perhaps all world leaders should be doing this much recreational reading. Call it the UN Book Club, or some such thing, and get the populaces to vote on the material in question. It’s likely that would result in the whole G20 sitting down to read Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code, but if nothing else, that might give them some common ground to break the ice at summits, and in one or two instances might ever so slightly assist in preventing one lot of people from ruining the lives of another.