Novels taught Obama 'how to be a citizen'

Novels taught Obama 'how to be a citizen'

US President Barack Obama has revealed he learned the "most important" things about being a citizen from reading novels.

In a two-part interview with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, which has been published by the New York Review of Books, Obama and Robinson discuss "some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in."

In the second installment of the interview, Obama asked the author if she was worried about people not reading novels due to being "overwhelmed by flashier ways to pass the time". He said for himself: "When I think about how I understand my role as a citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels.”

He added: "It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you."

Robinson, whose novel Gilead (Virago) won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, said to the president: "Literature at present is full to bursting. No book can sell in that way that Gone with the Wind sold, or something like that. But the thing that’s wonderful about it is that there’s an incredible variety of voices in contemporary writing. You know people say, is there an American tradition surviving in literature, and yes, our tradition is the incredible variety of voices."

Obama responded saying that "part of the challenge" with reading is lack of a "common conversation". He said: "It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about."

He said that some TV shows "fill that void" but "increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized" in a fast paced world which "puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise—which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they’re not heard."

The first part of the conversation between Obama and Robinson was published by two weeks ago by the New York Review of Books.


Picture from Wikipedia.