The Emperor Has No Books

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A view of Teddy Roosevelt’s library.  Sagamore Hill.

this post originally appeared in The Nugget News, February 28, 2017

Multiple news outlets have reported that President Donald Trump does not read books. If these reports can be believed, which is a large-style “if” these days, His Excellency eschews the written word altogether, preferring, one supposes, the background noise of flattering network coverage and the occasional furtive glance at his “so-elegant” self in a gilded mirror.

True or not—and with a nod to the embarrassing lack of articulation demonstrated by Monsieur Trump thus far–I believe it.

This is very bad news for all of us.  I don’t expect the President to be a zealous adherent to Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan, or to have memorized long passages of Proust, but I would be greatly comforted if I thought that, between issuing executive orders and glad-handing billionaires, he was tucking into Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, or John Keegan, a nice mix of authors that would, perhaps, greatly enrich his thinking.

If I were a scientist I would be hard at work attempting to prove a working hypothesis I’ve developed–that the number of books existing and/or read in a household is inversely proportional to the nitwittery that emanates from its inhabitants. Which is not to say that devoted readers are incapable of flamboyant stupidity. We just know that isn’t true, but still, my spidey-senses tell me there is something in the theory worth investigating.

In a former profession, I went inside a lot of houses. And all kinds of houses: crack houses, whorehouses, homes for rich people, extravagant mansions for really rich people, cockroach-infested hovels for poor people, and all manner of shacks for really, really poor people. Sometimes we even went into the homes of middle class folks, but usually only because little Johnny got caught with a bag of weed in his backpack, or because little Sally forgot her upbringing and boosted a pair of ballerina jeggings from Old Navy.

There were almost never any books. No bookshelves, even. There were always video game consoles, and often times, even in subsidized city housing where the inhabitants were illegally subleasing rooms, there was somehow a Cadillac Escalade in the driveway and a 60’ flat screen in the living room. But no books. Not even a worn out edition of The Cat in the Hat. Nothing.

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This was almost universally true, though in the interest of transparency I must mention the sad case of a notorious hoarder, who was actually crushed to death by his books. We discovered him much too late under a six-foot landslide of leatherbound classics and fading National Geographics. He was, tragically, DRT, which is cop-speak for: Dead Right There.

But the Emperor of America has no books.

We could, for historical interest, compare Mr. Trump to another outlandishly vain and populist president, Teddy Roosevelt. The 26th President was a voracious reader, and is purported to have read a book before breakfast, and perhaps as many as three in the evening. No doubt it was, in no small part, his deep and lifelong readings that made him such a formidable leader of peoples. Books can do that. The founder of the Bull Moose Party estimated that he had read tens of thousands of books in his lifetime, and the library at Sagamore Hill was jam-packed with tomes across a broad spectrum of interests.

Somehow, I believe the Office of the President is better served by Chief Executives who read.

I don’t dislike Donald Trump. I don’t have the time or the energy to spend hating the guy. Mostly, I find him disturbing and amusing, the same way I found Joe Biden disturbing and amusing. Both of them belong to that creepy eccentric class, the world of fabulously wealthy and pandering dolts, and are mostly ridiculous caricatures of American statesmanship. But I sincerely wish that Trump would read books. If he were to call the ranch phone I could recommend some good ones. I’d even send him a box full, free of charge, with a McGuffey Reader on top.

Books have a way of elevating us “onto the adult plateau” as Mark Moskowitz says in his fabulous documentary “Stone Reader”. In that film, Moskowitz goes to extraordinary lengths to find the author of his favorite book, “The Stones of Summer”, which revolutionized his thinking about life. A good book can explode our world, as it did for Moskowitz, and actually make us better human beings.

Even my granddad, a hard-bitten, hard drinking, World War 2 Marine who spent his life chasing cows around the American outback, read books. A lot of them, and toward the end he was reading Agatha Christie because, he said, “It keeps my bean in good shape.”

Roosevelt, naturally, came up with a list of rules for readers. Here is number 6: “Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls ‘the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”

The hero of San Juan Hill reminds us not to be arrogant about the kinds of books we read, which is an important thing. But it also assumes, as an obvious matter, that people are reading.

I wonder what Roosevelt would make of a President, or a nation that would elect him, that doesn’t read at all?

  1. Outstanding!

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    1. Many thanks my friend.

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  2. Craig…
    A quick one on the fly.
    Even Mark Twain had some deep concerns and unkind criticisms of TR. My grandfather took his first and middle name as well as did my younger brother from TR. He ranks among the top 5 presidents for me. However, I do take some umbrage at any comparisons to (ahem) President Trump, but with your recommendations to expanding his literacy I wholly agree.
    Stylistically and motivationally I see no synchronicity though (and this only scratched his golden surface). Bold and seemingly reckless might have some relevance. As it is was just reading about the comparisons of TRump to the better use of the letters TR. A good piece Craig, both entertaining and enlightening as always. We may agree to disagree on some things but on spirit never and that is how it should be.
    Let me think this through a little more and I will try to elucidate a little further…

    On the Road and On record:

    — Tramp not Trump

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    1. The comparison exists solely in the undeniable, and heavy doses, of narcissism that both enjoy. TR put his to better use.

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  3. First I flailed to answer your final question:

    My answer:

    He’s turning over in his grave at the very mention of it even as a stolen thought.

    A little more Mark Twain (who has a reserved right to speak about books) on the subject of TR and his reputation…

    ” He was in a skirmish once at San Juan Hill, and he got so much moonshine glory out of it that he has never been able to stop talking about it since. I remember that at a small luncheon party of men at Brander Matthews’s house, once, he dragged San Juan Hill in three or four times, in spite of all attempts of the judicious to abolish the subject and introduce an interesting one in its place. I think the President is clearly insane in several ways, and insanest upon war and its supreme glories. I think he longs for a big war wherein he can spectacularly perform as chief general and chief admiral, and go down to history as the only monarch of modern times that has served both offices at the same time.
    – Autobiographical dictation 18 October 1907. Published in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 (University of California Press, 2015)

    Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off and he would go to hell for a whole one.
    – Autobiographical dictation, 2 December 1907. Published in Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 (University of California Press, 2015)

    The contrast between President Cleveland and the present occupant of the White House is extraordinary; it is the contrast between an archangel and the Missing Link. Mr. Cleveland was all that a president ought to be; Mr. Roosevelt is all that a president ought not to be — he covers the entire ground. ”

    Ahh, everything old is new again…

    — ST

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    1. I would love to know the precise origin of Twain’s beef with Teddy. There is another story in there somewhere.

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  4. Well said!

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  5. Theodore Roosevelt WROTE more books than most people read in a lifetime.
    As for Trump — a thin-skinned, TV-obsessed vulgarian of incurious mind and short attention span. Surprised to find out that something that affects 320 million people and amounts to 1/6th of the economy is “so complicated.” Who could have imagined it? Crash.

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    1. His lack of articulation, and self-admitted poor messaging, do him few favors.

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  6. Twain’s outlook on Roosevelt was blinkered. With the perspective of more than a century, the comparison with Cleveland is laughable. Roosevelt — unlike our other Nobel Peace Prize-winning President — actually did something to earn it. The legacy of National Parks alone is considerable – and now under threat. Anti-trust legislation was critical to the never-ending struggle to wrest control of the economy from a complete stranglehold of “malefactors of great wealth.”
    TR was bumptious, no doubt — sometimes to the point of the obnoxious — and his imperialism put him at odds with the fervently anti-imperialist Twain. However, much as I love the old riverboat pilot’s books, I’d take TR seven days a week and twice on Sundays.

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    1. I’m wondering if they ever met, and what happened then. It might be a fine, one-act play.

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  7. Turns out they did, several times…”They met shortly after Roosevelt’s election as governor of New York, visited once in the White House, crossed paths at a Yale graduation ceremony, and they sometimes attended the same Lotos Club dinners. Each was well aware of their own and the other’s public esteem and was careful about what they said in public about each other, versus what they said in private. Twain was keenly aware that his income depended upon the readers who bought his books. Roosevelt, the consummate posturing politician, was always thinking of the next election. But Roosevelt once privately remarked that he wanted to skin Mark Twain alive, and Twain jotted down his private opinion that Roosevelt was “the worst President we have ever had.”

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  8. P.S.

    To all above due respect is given.
    I would ask for some recourse in any attempt at comparing Twain and TR as the premise was Trump’s comparison to TR.
    However, I do understand the temptation of this sidetrail. Tr criticizing Twain’s writing would be fair game and vice versa. To me they are equal giants in their respective fields. I hold them both in regard by that criteria. Twain was American as they come as well was TR. perhaps one would prefer another to their own personal taste. Mark Twain left an indelible mark on the American psyche, but if it’s Alexander The Great you seek, you are reading the wrong book. I would never want to be forced to choose one over the other. It would just be down right un-American in my [book]…

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    1. “Equal giants in there respective fields” says it all for me.

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  9. Chrisitne DeForest March 2, 2017 at 8:47 am

    And of course your research that Trump has no library is? As usual, this was well written, but the criticism of Trump I find largely slanted towards personal disdain.

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    1. Dear Angry Reader: having a library and actually reading it are two different things. The research into his reading habits was thorough, and fairly easy, given that numerous sources–from all sides of the political spectrum, including the far left wing Wall Street Journal, have written extensively about the topic. Here, incidentally, is a quote from the Emperor himself, when asked about his reading habits: “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time,” Trump said. Sorry, but by his own admission Mr. Trump is simply not a reader. There is a certain set of Trump supporters that will chafe against any word offered in criticism of the Dear Leader, and insist it is drawn from poor research or a well of “personal disdain,” as you put it. That’s myopic at best, and in this case it simply isn’t true. You should re-read the piece, wherein I express my feelings about him quite clearly. “Disturbing and amusing,” are the words I use, which fall far short of your “largely slanted” accusation here.

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      1. Further evidence of an aversion to — or possibly disability with — reading is his admitted (by himself, that is) unwillingness to read intelligence briefings. Which is disturbing without the amusing part.

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