Today Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States.
Argh. (said in anguish, not pirate-ese)
Let us turn instead to Barack Obama, outgoing President, and consider the role of reading and writing in his life.
Between granting last-minute pardons and a stirring farewell speech, the tallying up of legacy (six million net new jobs, 32 million uninsured Americans now with health care insurance, Wall Street reform, etc.) and a final stroll through the Rose Garden, President Obama sat down with NYT book critic Michiko Kakutani to talk about what books mean to him. What follows are excerpts from the transcript.
What made you want to become a writer?
I loved reading when I was a kid, partly because I was traveling so much, and there were times where I’d be displaced, I’d be the outsider. When I first moved to Indonesia, I’m this big, dark-skinned kid that kind of stood out. And then when I moved back from Indonesia to Hawaii, I had the manners and habits probably of an Indonesian kid.
And so the idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing to me.
… I think I rediscovered writing and reading and thinking in my first or second year of college and used that as a way to rebuild myself, a process I write about in “Dreams From My Father.”
That period in New York, where you were intensely reading.
I was hermetic — it really is true. I had one plate, one towel, and I’d buy clothes from thrift shops. And I was very intense, and sort of humorless. But it reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.
And so even though by the time I graduated I knew I wanted to be involved in public policy, or I had these vague notions of organizing, the idea of continuing to write and tell stories as part of that was valuable to me. And so I would come home from work, and I would write in my journal or write a story or two.
The great thing was that it was useful in my organizing work. Because when I got there, the guy who had hired me said that the thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories. And he told me that if you learn how to listen to people’s stories and can find what’s sacred in other people’s stories, then you’ll be able to forge a relationship that lasts.
But my interest in public service and politics then merged with the idea of storytelling.
Was writing partly a way to figure out your identity?
Yes, I think so. For me, particularly at that time, writing was the way I sorted through a lot of crosscurrents in my life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.
How has the speechwriting and being at the center of history and dealing with crises affected you as a writer?
I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to see when I start writing the next book. Some of the craft of writing a good speech is identical to any other good writing: Is that word necessary? Is it the right word? Is there a rhythm to it that feels good? How does it sound aloud?
I actually think that one of the useful things about speechwriting is reminding yourself that the original words are spoken, and that there is a sound, a feel to words that, even if you’re reading silently, transmits itself.
It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap —
It bridges them.
And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.
And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.
What books would you recommend at this moment in time, that capture this sense of turmoil?
… one of the things I’m confident about is that, out of this moment, there are a whole bunch of writers, a lot of them young, who are probably writing the book I need to read. [Laughter] They’re ahead of me right now. And so in my post-presidency, in addition to training the next generation of leaders to work on issues like climate change or gun violence or criminal justice reform, my hope is to link them up with their peers who see fiction or nonfiction as an important part of that process.
We’re bombarded with information. Technology is moving so rapidly.
Look, I don’t worry about the survival of the novel. We’re a storytelling species.
I think that what one of the jobs of political leaders going forward is, is to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people. And America is unique in having to stitch together all these disparate elements — we’re not one race, we’re not one tribe, folks didn’t all arrive here at the same time.
What holds us together is an idea, and it’s a story about who we are and what’s important to us. And I want to make sure that we continue that.
• • • • •
As a lifelong reader and writer, I am cheered to learn the role of reading and writing and story in Obama’s life. I look forward to his next book. Meanwhile, he has given us writers a charge: to write the stories about who we are and what’s important to us; to write America.
You can read the whole interview transcription here.