What Obama Has to Teach us About Reading and Literature?

Transcript: President Obama on What Books Mean to Him

I was reading Barack Obama’s interview with Michiko Kakutani on NY Times today. Obama speaks of his love for books, especially novels. His opinion on literature is as astute as a literary critic’s. He thinks that literature is necessary for everyone to read and even more so for a president. According to him, literature teaches you empathy and the ability to quiet your brain to think. The fact that a lawyer/politician/powerful leader chooses literature as a means to build these two qualities is the important point here.

Before I entered into the discipline of writing and literature, I was trained as an engineer. I know that I learned what empathy is and how to row past my own prejudices through novels. I feel like literature is for everyone. It’s an essential survival means for all of us. Secondly, Obama’s point on focus makes an even stronger case about why the books are the remedy to our ADHD minds. I worry about myself, my generation, and the generation after us about the influence of technology on human minds, on our ability to quiet our brains, to embrace boredom, and to not split into atoms of zillion distraction before finishing a book.

Here are few quotes from Obama’s interview:

  1. “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.”
  1. “And that’s why seeing my daughters now picking up books that I read 30 years ago or 40 years ago is gratifying, because I want them to have perspective — not for purposes of complacency, but rather to give them confidence that people with a sense of determination and courage and pluck can reshape things. It’s empowering for them.”
  1. “But 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.

    “When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.

    “There’s something particular about quieting yourself and having a sustained stretch of time that is different from music or television or even the greatest movies.

    “And part of what we’re all having to deal with right now is just a lot of information overload and a lack of time to process things. So we make quick judgments and assign stereotypes to things, block certain things out, because our brain is just trying to get through the day.”