Presidents and wannabe presidents are supposed to read. A novel or a work of history under their arms makes them look, in a word, presidential.
But just like the ties they wear, the book titles the candidates share with us are more than likely approved by image-conscious consultants. There's something suspicious, for example, about the list of favorite books on Barack Obama's Facebook page, which includes Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance," "Moby Dick," Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," and Shakespeare's tragedies.
It's a wonderful list. But they're the kinds of books you'd expect to find displayed on a shelf inside the Oval Office. They're a safe announcement of Obama's gravitas. They say: My middle name may be Hussein, but I'm still firmly inside the intellectual mainstream of America.
If the president had listed, say, the great Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, he risks fueling the fires of those who see him as an African-born socialist. Instead, with the exception of the Bard of Stratford, Obama's list gives us a democratic sampling of U.S. culture.
There's a lot of New England on Obama's list along with a healthy serving of the African American experience, including Taylor Branch's history of the civil rights movement, "Parting the Waters." And there's a sampling of the Midwest too: Marilynne Robinson's novel "Gilead," set in Iowa.
My journey into the mind of Mitt Romney, on the other hand, took me 3,000 years into the future, to an Earth dominated by a species of rapacious alien invaders called the Psychlos.
What an adventure! And what an ordeal! The Psychlos made us humans their slaves. They mined our planet for precious minerals. And they all talked in this really weird, stilted sci-fi language.
"You're as crazy as a nebula of crap..."
That bad, hyperbolic simile was written by L. Ron Hubbard, and it's in "Battlefield Earth," Hubbard's massive 1982 sci-fi novel, listed on Romney's Facebook page as one of his favorite books.
Much about Romney the public figure — and about his opponent and presidential candidates in general — seems depressingly scripted. But "Battlefield Earth" is a work that's so odd, and such an unlikely choice for any political candidate to name as a favorite, I have little doubt that Romney actually read it. Why else would the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party name the founder of the Church of Scientology as one of his favorite authors?
These days all presidential campaigns begin in Iowa, and Romney's reading list also includes a book set in that state — Bill Bryson's memoir, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid."
"Thunderbolt Kid" is a fun book you can read in a day, whereas the Iowa book on Obama's list — Robinson's "Gilead" — is a brooding work of serious literature that won the Pulitzer Prize. That pretty much sums up the difference in the men and their taste in books: In Obama's favorites the characters suffer, they philosophize, they struggle with and reflect on injustice, and they sermonize — the Bible is another book on Obama's list of putative favorites.
In Romney's favorites young people go out into the sunshine and glide down rivers ("Adventures of Huckleberry Finn") and battle alien species ("Battlefield Earth" and "Ender's Game"). Apparently, Romney is like a lot of people: He reads for pure escapism. Good and evil are pretty clearly defined in most of the books he likes. Life is simpler.
"We really were radiantly unsophisticated," Bryson writes in "Thunderbolt Kid," describing his family's life in 1950s Des Moines. Meals were bland. All sorts of foods were unknown to the Bryson family: "pasta, rice, cream cheese, sour cream, garlic … corned beef, pastrami, salami, or foreign food of any type, except French toast."
"Thunderbolt Kid" is a lively, breezy book about being a boy during the biggest economic boom in U.S. history. Fun was going to a department store in downtown Des Moines and taking the only escalator in Iowa.
To Bryson's credit, however, there are important lessons about America in "Thunderbolt Kid." As he gets older, Bryson's simple world gets more complicated and diverse, and he's totally cool with it. In high school he meets black people for the first time — and they're all as ordinary and nonthreatening as French toast. He has a friend who's homosexual. Years later, this gay Iowan becomes his agent.
If he read it and made it all the way to the end, Romney probably learned a thing or two from "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid."
Obama was almost certainly illuminated by his reading of "Song of Solomon." Morrison's epic 1977 novel is the one book on the president's list of favorites I'm most confident truly belongs there. Reading "Song of Solomon" was a rite of passage for people of color of Obama's generation. Morrison took the pain of African American history and with inspiration from García Márquez and Faulkner created a work of magical art about an Ohio community much like the one where she was raised — the kind of work you'd want a future U.S. president to read.
"Song of Solomon" is about the legacy of slavery. But its characters aren't passive, and it isn't a sad book: In the end, the coded message hidden in a nursery rhyme pulls the whole story together.
Back in 2008, candidate Obama was carrying around a lot of books. He read Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" about President Abraham Lincoln. Then, as president-elect, Obama did something very Lincolnesque — he named rival Hillary Rodham Clinton to his Cabinet.
So we know Obama likes weighty books. This past summer, a reporter noticed Jesmyn Ward's novel "Salvage the Bones" on his White House desk. Set in Mississippi amid the arrival of a hurricane much like Katrina, it's a lush book but not an easy one, and I'd be willing to bet that Obama's been too busy trying to beat Romney to read it.
Good books take time and effort to read. But then again, there's no law that says everything we read has to illuminate or inspire.
There is a law in presidential politics, however, that says everything a candidate does should stay true to a predetermined, focused message. Catch them carrying a hardcover, and what you're seeing isn't just a guy trying to relax during his downtime — it's also another element to the Obama or Romney brand.