Monday, September 27, 2010

Barack's Books

These days, there are all kinds of honors an author can dream about and strive for—a starred prepub review, the cover of The New York Times Book Review, and, every ten years or so, the cover of Time magazine. None of these, however, approaches the magic of the ultimate nod: the president of the United States reading your book. I still vividly remember the excitement that permeated our hallways two years ago when Barack mentioned in an interview that he was reading a book one of my bosses edited. It was like Christmas come early. I’ve seen other houses endorse their books with “as read by Barack Obama” stickers.

Recently, when I discovered that Barack Obama was reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom it occurred to me that, in the two years that I had been following his reading list, I haven’t come across a single mention of a book written by a woman. In googling the issue to see if this was in fact the case, I came across a comprehensive list the Daily Beast put together of the books that he had been spotted with, or had announced he was reading, and in which publications each had been reported. I have to say, he has good taste, and a nice range of interest—Dave Eggers’s What Is The What to keep in tune with the younger generation of writers and literary fiction, Hot Flat and Crowded for a bit of nonfiction, and Richard Price’s Lush Life for a good old fashioned fast-paced, plot-driven tale. Alarmingly, though, out of eighteen titles only one of them—Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin—boasted a female author. Thinking maybe he was just going through a phase, I was happy to find a article that covered his favorite authors over the years. Here, too, there was a nice range of material. Everyone from Nietzsche to E.L. Doctorow, Shakespeare to Roth is mentioned. Only one woman, though, gets a shout out: Toni Morrison.

To be fair, Barack isn’t the only literature enthusiast in our country to skew toward tales penned by men. Oprah’s book club picks notoriously enjoy smashing, record breaking sales. Between 2005 and 2010 Oprah has selected fourteen books and not a single one of them was written by a woman. Her last female pick was in 2004—The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Colleges, too, have syllabi that boast far more classics by men than women. I had the great pleasure of attending a college that had a huge variety of English literature seminars to choose from despite how small it is, and took several with very narrow focuses: twentieth century Irish literature, the jazz age, modernism. My favorite seminars became those dedicated to only one or two authors: the Melville and Hawthorne combo, Shakespeare, and even a class that covered only one poem: Dante’s Divine Comedy. In all my time there, however, I was only able to take one seminar dedicated wholly to the fiction of a woman, and that was George Eliot, who notoriously wrote under a pen name meant to disguise her as a male.

With its overwhelmingly male dominated history, perhaps it is unfair to expect Barack to gravitate toward female authors when it comes to literature. But as a president associated with fostering change, perhaps he more there anyone is capable of leading the charge in that direction? Barack, may I humbly suggest Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth? Tara French’s In the Woods will have you at the edge of your seat, I guarantee it, and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September still stays with me even though it’s been a good seven years since I read it. Annie Proulx has won just about every award that exists for fiction, and with good reason. ZZ Packer and Lydia Peelle are two writers that the National Book Award has recognized at their 5 under 35 event whose careers I look forward to following. All of these women have been monumental successes in their time, and have shaped the way we think about events that color our world. They’ve indirectly commented on everything from large, profound issues like war and race and class to smaller, cultural phenomenons like electronic networking and the things that give us a good, fun scare.

Happy reading.

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