Perhaps the strangest reaction to President Obama’s summer-reading list came from Mickey Kaus (emphasis his):
Obama’s just-released “summer reading list” doesn’t offer a lot of evidence even for the “reads very widely” thesis. It’s heavy on the wrenching stories of migrant experiences, something the President already knows quite a bit about. … Maybe the release of this list is a bit of politicized PR BS designed to help the President out. If so, it’s sending the wrong message. Which leads me to suspect it might actually be real.
There is an absurdity on the very surface of this statement—the implication that I, as the grandson of a native Yiddish-speaker, oughtn’t waste my time with Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, or that I, as the grandson of farm-raised Kentuckians, have nothing to learn from Wendell Berry—that obscures its deeper, and more systemic, misunderstanding of the purpose of literature in general and fiction particularly. Kaus also implies that what one will learn, or experience, or witness through reading is no different in the works of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, because they both write about the highly literate, highly American children of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants (most of whom, incidentally, have highly troubled love lives). Or, say, that “Goodbye, Columbus” is exactly the same as American Pastoral. I mean, they both take place in Newark, right?
But “Goodbye, Columbus,” is a novella written by a man in his mid-twenties, about a man in his mid-twenties in the present day; American Pastoral is framed by the aftermath of Zuckerman’s prostate surgery, and the bulk involves him looking back to the Newark of Neil Klugman’s early adulthood. Mortality, as the inevitable conclusion of human life, becomes a constant presence—almost a companion—in Roth’s fiction beginning with Sabbath’s Theater.* This is the change that slows the pace of his writing to its earlier, Jamesian roots and, to my mind, is responsible for the string of awards and renewed acclaim that met these novels. If the reader learns from fiction, what he learns from these novels is vastly different from, say, Portnoy’s Complaint.
If one doesn’t necessarily experience the same thing from reading the various works of a single author, then it should, clearly, be evident that one doesn’t experience the same thing by reading the works of various authors, united only by the factors of background or that ever-nebulous term, “theme.” One only learns the same thing, as a rule, by works united in these ways if there is nothing to learn from fiction, that fiction is only, and merely, entertainment. Fiction can, of course, be merely entertainment; but it is not necessarily entertainment. The best fiction—the best literature generally—is more than entertainment. This is not to say that fiction should be didactic (God forbid it!), but that the reading of fiction allows one to experience a unique perspective, a unique story, a unique narrative. As I put it a little while ago,
Fiction doesn’t present the unreal; it presents the possibly real, something balancing precariously between the real and the non. […] We empathize with fictional beings not despite their unreality, but because of their possible reality.
It is the “ghostly proximity to other human souls” of which Marilynne Robinson sometimes speaks.
Just as we shouldn’t be concerned about the fact that the President is reading fiction, we shouldn’t be concerned about the fact that he’s reading, apparently, about “migrant experiences.” Zoë Pollack was very much on the right track when she mentioned, briefly, an “instinct for narrative.” But shouldn’t we be concerned that he’s reading David Grossman and not Saul Bellow, or some other fellow with a Nobel (or at least a half-century of death) under his belt? Contemporary fiction presents narratives about the contemporary world—or at least from the contemporary world (compare, again, “Goodbye, Columbus” and American Pastoral—set in the same period; written at different times). Even in the latter case, it offers an understanding of the contemporary world, about how we narrate the past from our present. So perhaps the President isn’t seeking the escape from the world this summer; perhaps he’s taking a few weeks to seek a kind of understanding, or at least a perspective, that he’ll never find in a policy brief—or in the latest “Current Affairs” best-seller.
*To some extent, I’ll concede, Zuckerman’s severe back problems of The Anatomy Lesson anticipate the presence of mortality in the 1990s and on; death and dying are constants in The Counterlife, but, I think, serve more as plot devices to explore matters of fictional and national/religious identity, rather than the other way around.