Why do we care what political figures are reading? Do the books on their nightstands say something about them that the ones on ours can’t, or won’t? Maybe it’s reasonable to believe that one can draw general inferences about a politician who cites the Bible as his or favorite, different from those drawn when someone mentions Aurelius’s Meditations, Kagan’s The World America Made or Morrison’s The Song of Solomon (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Jeb Bush, respectively). But that could just as easily suggest we’ve internalized all the cultural signifiers and can pick up on the dog whistles: the titles are meant less to tell us about those figures as real people than to present them as packagable, electable brands to a core constituency or group of donors. Or perhaps I’m being cynical.
A little over a week ago the New York Times Book Review asked Hillary Clinton about the books she’s reading, likes to read, remembers reading, and wants to read. How you view her responses, both individually and in sum total, may depend on your feelings about Hillary Clinton in the first place. Some might see intellectual voracity, others a general and generous capaciousness; some might sense a lack of discrimination, and still others (and they’re out there) a carefully considered, maybe even market-tested, cataloging of titles meant to tickle the vanities and excite the particular interests of a range of existing and emerging constituencies—even if as far as I can tell no one’s actually called it triangulation.
Rarely content to provide one answer or a single example when several (or more) will do, she also exhibits the Clinton penchant for surfeiting the audience. The one book she wishes all students would read? Pride and Prejudice, Out of Africa, and Schindler’s List. The last truly great book she’s read? The Hare With Amber Eyes, The Signature of All Things, Citizens of London, and A Suitable Boy. Favorite genre? Cooking, decorating, diet/self-help and gardening books. Her roster of favorite contemporary authors runs to twenty, from the literary to the less-so, from Mantel and Morrison to Grafton and Grisham. She mentions poets and pundits and politicians, from Neruda to Dionne to Sen. John McCain. Kids’ books? You got ‘em: Winnie-the-Pooh and Nancy Drew and Little Women, and, from her time reading to daughter Chelsea, Goodnight Moon and Curious George.
And then comes… the Bible.
That's her uncharacteristically contained answer to the question, “What is the one book that made you who you are today?” “At the risk of appearing predictable,” she says, “the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.”
I’ll have to give her the benefit of the doubt. And I may have to reconsider my criteria for the inferences I tend to draw when certain public figures mention certain authors and works. On the other hand, maybe it really does prove the pointlessness of seeking anything meaningful from a public figure’s list of reading materials; as a method for gaining actual insights, can it really be trusted?
Maybe it’s more worthwhile to listen to what Hillary Clinton says than to follow what she reads. In an interview with The Guardian she tried to explain why her considerable wealth may not be the political downside for her that, say, Mitt Romney’s was for on the issue of economic inequality: "[T]hey don't see me as part of the problem because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names; and we've done it through dint of hard work." Not the most elegant of constructions, and maybe even a gaffe—at least according to Republicans. But according to Brian Beutler in The New Republic, that mention of “ordinary income tax” means something:
The next GOP nominee might not be quite as cartoonish a plutocrat as Romney, but he will almost certainly be wealthy, and, crucially, will almost certainly promote an agenda that would exacerbate economic inequality. When Clinton said "we pay ordinary income tax" she wasn't just taking a gratuitous jab backwards at Romney for paying taxes at a sub-15 percent rate. She was presaging an agenda that will almost certainly call for eliminating or reducing tax preferences that allow an entire class of people of great wealth to reduce their effective tax rates. I don't know if she'll propose jacking up the capital gains tax, or closing the carried-interest loophole. I don't know if she'll target individual tax loopholes, or advocate for capping tax expenditure benefits or anything about what her economic agenda will look like. But I am 100 percent confident it will include some measures along these lines…
Better to be gleaning signals in this way rather than by seeking hints in a book list. Reading Hillary, in other words, is probably more worthwhile than following what Hillary reads, and the same should be said in regard to politicians generally.