It’s been a month of momentous White House announcements. First, there was Laura’s gender-bending, glass-soufflé-dish breaking decision to choose Cristeta Comerford for the previously all-male post of White House head chef. Then came the issuing of the presidential vacation reading list. Besieged in Crawford’s Green Zone by Cindy Sheehan and her supporters, but also by sinking poll numbers, rising casualty figures in Iraq, Republican fears for the 2006 midterm elections, soaring gas prices, and a world generally spinning out of control, the president has sworn to stick to vacation normalcy biking, brush-cutting, and, of course, reading. “I think it’s also important for me to go on with my life” has been his response to the building pressure and to prove it, we’re told, he’s settled in with three good books: Mark Kurlansky’s history of salt, John Barry’s tale of the great flu pandemic of 1918, and hmmm Edvard Radzinsky’s upcoming Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar.
But in his summer of non-fun, further steps on the book front may be in order. Admittedly, he’s already signed on for 1,500 pages of heavy reading, but tsars, salt, and the flu? As the berms go up and the universe closes in, what the president really needs is a genuinely useful summer-of-Cindy reading list and, as a longtime editor in publishing, I decided I could provide exactly that. So I took an informal survey of editors and writers I know, asking for their thoughts on a presidential reading list that might bring closure to George’s beleaguered August. The books, I suggested, should be attention-grabbing, informative, and above all utilitarian.
The list that resulted from my survey includes several books on (or recently on) bestseller lists, a couple of eternal classics (child as well as adult), and other intriguing suggestions that add up to a hefty 4,000 pages of help. I’ve taken the liberty of arranging them into four categories a lucky “top 13” list of books whose order is meant to offer a shape to the last weeks of a long, hot presidential summer.
13 Problem-Solving Books for George
On Handling the New Neighbors
1. Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee: A South African fable about strangers at the gates of a disintegrating empire.
2. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: A satire about a country-city collision for those nights at the “ranch” when the chanting of demonstrators rises to an otherwise unbearable din. (Alternate selection: Bleak House by Charles Dickens.)
3. Dear Mister Rogers: Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood? by Fred Rogers: An avuncular gem offering advice to child letter writers on essential subjects, including how to get along with unexpected neighbors and difficult new friends (sweater not included).
4. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs, Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor: Necessary background for another possible approach to relocating Cindy Sheehan’s “Camp Casey” the discovery of a weapons-of-mass-destruction program, possibly even the precursors for a nuclear bomb, on its present one-acre site.
On Drawing a Line in the Sand Without an Oasis in Sight
5. A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence by John E. Mack: The biography of a modern Western intruder who helped establish a base line for disorder in the Middle East.
6. The Persian Boy by Mary Renault: A don’t-ask, don’t-tell novel about Alexander the Great, another shock-and-awe visitor who had a terminal case of being unable to get out of the Middle East.
7: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell: Administration officials have already announced so many Iraqi “tipping points” that it’s time for George to consult a tipping-point expert.
Domestic Conundrums Wrapped in Administration Enigmas
8. On Bull____ by Harry G. Frankfurt: Suggestions from a philosopher that the president can pass on to White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. (After all, reading to help others is a giving way to go.)
9. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife: In case the president’s poll numbers really do turn out to be in freefall.
10. All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: In case Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald lowers the boom on a presidential aide or two just as the fall begins, tips from the Watergate era.
11. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond: Even a president should understand the ways in which an overreaching society (party, administration, cabal) can eat its own tail.
Looking Back with Feeling
12. Pat the Bunny (touch and feel book) by Dorothy Kunhardt: For reassurance when your aides are indicted, your numbers in the toilet, your soldiers in the quagmire, your party’s never heard of you, and history’s knocking on the door.
13. Paradise Lost by John Milton What else is there to say?
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”) and is co-founder of the American Empire Project, has been an editor in publishing for three decades. He is now consulting editor for Metropolitan Books. The paperback of his novel, The Last Days of Publishing, is due out in September.
Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt