From Our Staff | October 17, 2008

Do we really care what our political candidates read? Well, as devoted readers ourselves, of course we do. And it seems the larger world does too. Some people are afraid of what the candidates read — witness the e-mail circulating that shows a photo of Barack Obama toting a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. Some are afraid of what the candidates aren’t reading, as seen in reactions to Sarah Palin’s failure to name a major periodical that she reads. What would we like our presidential and vice-presidential hopefuls to read? The staff of The Missouri Review offer their own recommendations.

1. Joe Biden

Kris Somerville: Unlike Bill Clinton, Joe Biden was no Rhodes Scholar.  He graduated from the University of Delaware in Newark in 1965 near the bottom of his class:  506th of 688.  He attended Syracuse University College of Law in 1968 and ran into a little trouble with a law review article he had written; five of the fifteen pages were plagiarized.  Today all is forgiven and his early academic foibles, his humble middle-class roots, and the fact that he’s one of the least wealthy members of the Senate endear him to voters.  Yet, there are two books that he should have carried in his backpack during his academic career:  Christopher J. Yianilos’ The Law School Breakthrough: Graduate In The Top 10% Of Your Class, Even If You’re Not A First-Rate Student and Ann Raimes’ Keys for Writers, 5th Edition  Today, to figure out how to fill his personal coffers he might hire “peak performance” coach Tony Robbins.  After all, only owning one home is hardly vice-presidential these days.

Joe Aguilar: From introducing his running mate as “Barack America” to proclaiming that in Delaware “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent” to stating that when “the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and…said, ‘Look, here’s what happened,'” Joe Biden’s mid-speech gaffes, accidental as they might be, form a wonderfully bizarre vision of an America where presidential candidates have secret superhero identities, only East Indians are legally allowed to shop at convenience stores, and presidents make nationally televised speeches long before television sets actually become household items.  Mr. Biden’s taste for the absurd makes me think that he would enjoy Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel The Slynx, the story of a post-nuclear-bomb Russia where people barter in mice and the KGB-like Saniturions rove the country in sleighs, dressed in red robes, confiscating books, while the dangerous screeching Slynx lurks in the woods, waiting.  If Mr. Biden likes this novel, he should also check out Tolstaya’s fantastic short-story collection White Walls, which contains some of the weirdest, prettiest stories in my recent memory.

2. Sarah Palin

Brittany Barr recommends: The Supremes’ Greatest Hits: The 34 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life by Michael G. Trachtman. Given her recent struggles with recalling Supreme Court rulings other than Roe vs. Wade, it looks like this potential Vice President needs to brush up on her history. This comprehensive guide to the 34 “most significant” cases should bring her up to speed.

Dustin Michael: I hate to admit it, but I’m a one issue voter. My one issue: dinosaurs. And though I’ll let some things slide (mispronouncing spinosaurus so that it rhymes with rhinocerus, for example), I find others (such as a baldfaced disregard for the fossil record) unacceptable. 

Originally, I thought of recommending my trusty dinosaur field guide to GOP veep pic Sarah Palin, but I recognized that it wouldn’t have the same sentimental appeal for her as it does for me, and that she would find it insulting instead of nostalgic, and that people would find it mean instead of sincere. So I’m recommending instead The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould. This insightful work is handsomely bound, and more up to Palin’s reading level. She’s no dummy, after all; she’s just a little mixed up about how old the planet is, and about what kinds of animals roamed the earth when. A good dose of Gould ought to clear things up for her, doggone it. You betcha!

3. John McCain

Lania Knight recommends: If I Live to Be 100, by Neenah Ellis. No, this is not a tongue-in-cheek selection. Despite McCain’s age, past illnesses, and former imprisonment when he was a soldier, I hope that if he is elected president, not only that he lives to 100, but that he takes the time to reflect upon the wisdom of his many years on the planet in a way similar to what Ellis’ interview subjects have done in response to her gentle, but probing questions. In this book, Ellis, producer of NPR’s One Hundred Years of Stories, describes the interviews of her centenarian subjects with grace and candor, illuminating for the reader differences among older Americans, both nuanced and stark, and the ways in which growing up in an era very different from the present can enlarge one’s worldview and allow one to see solutions where there might only appear to be problems. In our modern culture, advanced age is too often seen as a liability; it is treated with an indifference reinforced by segregation. How will we know or remember that our elders are wise if we don’t ever see them or take the time to listen to their stories? I’m recommending this book not only for McCain, but for the many adherents of youth culture (wittingly or not) in the U.S. who, because they have little meaningful contact with members of older generations, can easily overlook the power of thoughtful reflection and a long lifetime of experience.

4. Barack Obama

Speer Morgan: Yes, Obama gives great oration, delivering his rhetoric with grace and gravity.  Yet when he tries to shift into a folksy, storytelling mode he grinds gears.  Listening to him is a rough ride.  In fact, I have noticed during rallies poor Michelle’s eyes glaze over.  I can read her thoughts:  “How about a little narrative compression, dear husband?” 

And does he know a joke or two?  These are hard times, but lighten up, Mr. Almost Pres.  This Christmas, his staff should stuff his stocking with a mini-library of joke books-Craig Kirsner’s The Art of Telling Great Jokes & Being Funny!and Larry Getlen’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jokes, with maybe something by Mark Twain to loosen him up.  With a little humor under his belt, he might be able to appreciate the “controversial” New Yorker cover.

Evelyn Somers: Barack Obama has been burdened with the same intellectual label that has hurt the Democrats’ nominees in recent history, Bill Clinton excepted.  For Obama, the only candidate for whom I wouldn’t recommend a Dummies guide, I’d suggest a short read on declining Presidential rhetoric by Elvin Lim, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency.  You can read Lim’s blog Amazon on the debate rhetoric here.