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The President’s nightstand: the real issues

South Africa

South Africa

The President’s nightstand: the real issues

Where does a leader find inspiration as the day runs out and thoughts turn to what must still be done tomorrow? This article has evolved from the contretemps that erupted last week when University of Cape Town academic Richard Calland, speaking at the Cape Town Press Club, was reported to have criticized President Jacob Zuma for not being a reader. This in contrast to a previous president who was, and thus a criticism of leadership by virtue of this perceived flaw. J BROOKS SPECTOR ponders the larger meaning of this discussion.

For people who are readers, it seems almost impossible to assume a leader would not also be a voracious reader. And that he wouldn’t want it widely and favourably known. For example, American presidents have been using this assumption in releasing lists of their favourite books, or the ones they have been most influenced by for many years. This has obviously been more than attempt to gain the votes of bookstore owners.

In the run-up to the last American election, for example, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney released what could only be described as duelling book lists. This was, presumably, designed to highlight aspects of their respective personalities, leadership styles, and even to illustrate they were still men of the people. Perhaps the most surprising revelation may have been that challenger Mitt Romney turned out to have a hankering for the Twilight series. Although most people knew Obama had a love for Abraham Lincoln, who knew Mitt had a literary hankering for vampires?

Obama’s Facebook page now lists some of his all-time favourite books as well. This is no collection of lightweight airplane reads. Not surprisingly, along with Lincoln’s collected writings Obama also included Shakespeare’s tragedies, the Bible, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Taylor Branch’s history of the civil rights struggle, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

Beyond election campaign-connected booklists or all time favourites, it has also become increasingly usual for presidents, once they have been elected, to issue their annual summer vacation reading lists – the books that are going into that duffel bag along with the tennis rackets, sun block and swim suits. It almost seems as if they want to say, “Well, yes, I’m going to the beach, but I’m dragging along some pretty deep books to help keep my mind focused on the nation’s important tasks, and the need to keep thinking about the future of our nation. And this is the case even if I also sneak in an Elmore Leonard detective novel or two, just for fun.” Maybe this is the presidential equivalent of the impulse that has forced generations to drag an unabridged version of War and Peace or Don Quixote to the beach so they can very publicly churn their way through a chapter or two before finally giving up and starting to relax.

In a discussion of presidential book choices, Politico noted that over the years “mystery lovers, bibliophiles and White House observers waited on tenterhooks overnight to see which books Obama bought during a vacation stop at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven on Friday.”

They added, “Obama brought three books with him on vacation: Cutting for Stone, a novel by Abraham Verghese; To the End of the Land, a novel by David Grossman; and The Warmth of Other Suns, which was described as the epic story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson.” More recently disclosure even has extended to presidential progeny. Politico wrote that Obama had purchased Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony – perennial bestsellers, both – for his daughters.

This habit of public book lists has spread to Britain too. Prime ministers now issue their own summer reading lists as well. A few years back, David Cameron even issued a reading list for his party’s members in parliament so they would be current with the ideas he believed illuminated contemporary Conservative Party thinking on those big issues. Reporting on this homework, The Telegraph wrote, “The list, delivered to the Commons pigeonhole of each Conservative member shortly before recess, is bereft of traditional easy beach reads, thrillers and chick lit novels. Instead Tory politicians will be expected to spend their summer break brushing up on history and political philosophy, in a bid to make better and more ‘Cameroonian’ ministers, should the Conservatives triumph at the next election.” That sounds rather too much like homework.

According to the Guardian, “Tony Blair is a lover of baddies, wizard collaborators, religious prophets, political outcasts and obsessives, according to a list of his favourite nine books in the world. Selecting his Desert Island books, the architect of New Labour chooses – somewhat bizarrely – Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume, largely sympathetic biography of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, a man finally killed by his methodical and brutal political rival, Stalin. He also selects Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings plus biographies of Jesus and Muhammad among his list of most cherished reads in an article in We Love This Book, the new sister magazine of the Bookseller. He said he had been drawn to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a book he is currently reading with son Leo. ‘Long John Silver is not a plain simple baddie, but a man capable certainly of badness but also of a certain code of honour.’”

The Guardian article goes on to note, “The former prime minister admits that his choice of Deutscher’s Trotsky biography might seem odd given his own politics, but says it was the first political book he read and the one that got him interested in politics. ‘Trotskyism and its fight with the official Soviet-style left defined student politics in the 1960s and 1970s, and no one who lived through that period can forget it.’ Trotsky, he says, was driven by instincts that were more moral than scientific. He also chooses Emile Zola’s Germinal, saying he read it in the original to improve his French. He writes: ‘What makes the book remarkable is the vivid description of not just the life of the miner, but also of the mine itself – a bestial place of misery of many, for the profit of a few.’ He describes Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott as a work of genius and a classic love story centring on a love triangle of Ivanhoe, Saxon Princess Rowena and beautiful Rebecca. ‘Read it and see if, like me, you are sure he should have defied convention and eloped with Rebecca’”.

Meanwhile, former head of the Cuban government, Fidel Castro has been reported to be fond of The Secrets of the Bilderberg Club, quoting from it at length in a speech he gave a couple of years ago. However, try as we might, we’ve been unable to find reading recommendations, for example, from leaders such as Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, Robert Mugabe or Angela Merkel (so we don’t know if the German chancellor curls up at night with a bit of Kant or Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, if the new head of China’s government is an aficionado of Sun Tzu, or if the new Japanese prime minister has fallen in love with Nobel lit prize favourite Haruki Murakami’s eccentric novels or fancies translations of John Le Carre’s books).

However, it does happen that Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued not one, but several book lists of his favourites. One of these came, curiously, in an interview he gave to the American publication Outdoor Life, in which he demonstrated a thorough knowledge of and a love for American 20th century realist literature, among other works. Not surprisingly for a man who has been known to whip off his shirt to show off a six-pack for a campaign-style photo shoot, Putin says he reads a real man’s books, often from the pens of some famous two-fisted literary brawlers.

In the interview Putin said: “I have always loved and avidly read the novels of Jack London, Jules Verne and Ernest Hemingway. The characters depicted in their books, who are brave and resourceful people embarking on exciting adventures, definitely shaped my inner self and nourished my love for the outdoors.” He then lectures his interviewer, saying, “It seems to me that we have a slightly different understanding of the outdoors concept … I would not be wrong, I believe, if I were to say that we have rather different views even on Hemingway. It seems to me that the book you enjoy most is Green Hills of Africa. As for me, it is A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.”

Commenting on Putin’s extraordinary interview The New Yorker wrote, “At the end of the interview Putin offers a view of life by pointing to the 19th writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, and his fable about a fish who hides beneath stones, fearful of danger. The moral, per Putin: ‘One can truly enjoy his or her life only while experiencing it, and it is inevitably related to a certain level of risk.’ Finally, then, this is the projected Putin packaged for America: the man of action, the teller of fables and myths.” Besides his being a clever writer of op-eds for the New York Times.

Putin also chose to tell Americans (and the rest of the world) of his deep fondness for books about World War II in an article published under his own name. Putin wrote, “I am glad to describe some of the books about World War II that are especially meaningful to me – all the more so since I learned about the great research and educational work that World War II is doing. The memory of World War II, its terrible images, and its tragic times will always be imprinted in the reminiscences of its eyewitnesses – in their letters, stories, and memoirs. Turning to them gives us much to ponder. And, of course, the creative work of writers who served on the front lines – for example, nobody wrote about the history of World War I or about broken destinies more sincerely or truthfully than Hemingway or Remarque.”

Putin rounded off his war novel recommendations by saying, “Learn about the heroes in the stories and novels of our war correspondents Konstantin Simonov (The Living and the Dead, 1959) or Mikhail Sholokhov (The Fate of a Man, 1957; They Fought for Their Country, 1959). Learn about the self-affirmation and great patience of the ordinary Soviet soldier, who became the theme of the works of officers Boris Vasil’ev (And the Dawns Here are Quiet, 1969; He Was Not on the List, 1974) and Konstantin Vorob’ev (Killed Near Moscow, 1963; It is We, God! 1943). The book Moment of Truth (1973) by Vladimir Bogomolov, who went as a volunteer to the front, will tell you about the difficult days of military intelligence, filled with danger.”

And here in South Africa? In response to the commotion from Richard Calland’s press club speech and the Presidency’s sharp rejoinder that hinted darkly at elitism or worse, we contacted the Presidency’s spokesman, Mac Maharaj, for clarification. Over the course of the day Friday there was an interesting electronic exchange, evolving out of a just-issued Presidential media release that argued, “the Presidency is alarmed by the statements about President Jacob Zuma made by Mr Richard Calland from the University of Cape Town, which are based on rumours and stereotyping. Mr Calland is reported to have told the Cape Town Press Club that, among other things, the President ‘does not read’. The statement is incorrect, unfortunate and misleading. It also serves to perpetuate stereotypes. Mr Calland has no knowledge of how the President works or how he prepares for meetings or any aspects of his work. It is therefore shocking that Mr Calland has taken gossip and rumours to be fact and has also decided to spread such rumours further.” Calland’s speech had built on his recent book on the Zuma presidency that had included, among other points, a comment from the late Kader Asmal that cabinet officials often didn’t read the policy and decision documents directly related to their work.

Accordingly, I sent my first note: “Dear Mac – Out of interest, what is the President reading now?”

His response was: “Interesting Brooks, that you are ready to use gossip to create news! Mac”

To which I replied: “I am interested to discuss the nature of what informs leadership… Where they get ideas. I am hardly asking for gossip. I would be genuinely interested in a president’s reading, the books he likes. I thought my question was a pretty straightforward query. And very ungossipy! Still interested in an answer to help inform my column on this larger topic.”

To this further note, the spokesman then replied:Forgive my ignorance. I took your question at face value, which was: ‘Out of interest, what is the President reading now?’ It never occurred to me from the question that you were investigating is ‘What informs leadership … Where they get ideas.’ Absent this knowledge, you would forgive me for assuming that Calland’s gossip was your basis for the question. Now that you have clarified, I would be interested on which leaders in SA you have probed for the source of their ideas. In which case, I am certain you would not be treating what one reads as the sole source of where one gets one’s ideas. Nor would you restrict ‘leadership’ to such narrow limits. In case you think I am being flippant, I wrote as far back as 2001 that ‘The evolution of thought and ideas in individuals and society fascinates me.’ (Reflections in Prison, edited by Mac Maharaj, p. xiii, 2001). Mac”

In response: “Mac – I am thinking comparatively and internationally, and maybe even generating a list of should reads and must reads. Calland’s comment is simply my jumping off point for this larger question. I am sure you know, for example, that the White House usually lists a President’s summer reading list before they go on vacation. I would value a thoughtful considered response on this President’s information and reading interests.”

Thereupon the presidential spokesman concluded our little colloquy with: “Unfortunately you seem to be replicating Calland who also claims his interest is looking at matters “comparatively”. Regret I see this as an effort to dignify gossip and make gossip the basis for news.
Kind regards.”

For the sake of clarity, however, it must be added that the chief opposition party, at the time of this writing, was no more forthcoming about their leader’s reading habits.

And so it was on to the second step of our plan. If we could not elicit clarifying light on local presidential reading habits in the manner of American, British or Russian leaders, maybe it was time to ask, instead, what should a leader – particularly in an African nation such as this one – have on his or her reading list? And why? And so, we asked dozens friends and acquaintances what they thought should be on that presidential bedside table for night-time reading.

Many suggested readings that offered insights into the challenges of governing Africa through the medium of fiction, rather than the usual kinds of political and economic studies and reports that could put strong men to sleep. Author Chris van Wyk, for example, recommended the novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah. (The spelling is that way on purpose.)

As van Wyk described it from memory, the book takes place during the early years of Ghanaian independence when a government employee becomes increasingly aware that his colleagues are stealing from their government. Alarmed about this corruption, he requests an urgent meeting with his boss. After telling his supervisor what is happening his supervisor says, “My friend, when Kwame Nkrumah led our Ghana to freedom, what he actually did was to kill a gigantic beast. Nkrumah wants us all to eat from that beast. And what you are seeing now is people enjoying the feast. You should go and enjoy the beast too!” As a companion volume, a leading local broadcaster recommended Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel Wizard of the Crow, set in the imaginary Free Republic of Abruria that is autocratically governed by one man, known only as the Ruler.

Still others have suggested cautionary tales of a South Africa gone seriously awry. Short, intense works like Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, Karel Schoeman’s Promised Land and JM Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K. Perhaps these might be put together with George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch as well. And with a nod to more traditional reading habits, others suggested the collection include some of Dialogues of Plato, a nicely annotated copy of the Bible, perhaps with the Book of Daniel discreetly bookmarked, and biographies of some of the great leaders of humanity throughout history.

Still others urged including modern works that explore the nature of economic progress – or the lack of it. These could include David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, Henry Kissinger’s On China, or even one of Tom Friedman’s books such as The World is Flat or Flat, Hot and Crowded. Others suggested insuring any leader’s readings include a diverse collection of newspapers and online publications such as the Economist, the Financial Times weekend edition, as well as a generous selection of online publications. A few even recommended books like Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces as a way of broadening out the consideration of civilization’s best qualities.

Nevertheless, some interlocutors distanced themselves from the very idea of equating any measures of a depth and breadth of reading with competence or wisdom as a national leader. Other qualities – and other ways of getting the right information to manage – are more important, they insisted, pointing out that the South African experience with a leader who read widely and deeply had not been entirely salutary. And one correspondent said, echoing Franklin Roosevelt’s use of his aides and his wife to ferret out information, a gifted leader would appoint and then rely upon aides who read deeply and widely so that they could present a leader with the widest possible range of insights and alternatives.

Writing from London about this complicated question Robert Greig, a long-time observer of the uses and abuses of South Africa’s literary life, argues, “It’s an enticing if naïve notion that reading (or studying) presidents must be better ones. If Thabo Mbeki was a better president – how does one judge – this is hardly attributable to the fact that he read books and quoted them. I suspect this may be code for presidents that are more like you and me and it is historically ignorant. Why should there be a correlation between a habit or background of reading and greater statesmanship. The poet-philosopher or philosopher-king is a wish rather than a likelihood.”

Greig went on to say, “And Richard Calland’s comments suggest ignorance of how policies and decisions in governments and organisations are generally, actually made, which is collectively, infused with precedent, law, a sense of resources available, a juggling with priorities, sometimes intelligently but often with calculation, in panic or opportunistically … I suspect Calland, knowingly or not, hankers for the great man theory of politics and leadership … And Eurocentric suspicion of the collectivism of an ANC government, or notions of African decision-making as opposed to individual insight, may be another underlying element in his reproof.”

And yet, a single volume compilation of the complete works of Shakespeare, the so-called “Robben Island Bible” circulated for years among the prisoners on that island, may stand in at least partial rebuttal. While in prison, each reader of this increasingly tattered volume underlined the speeches that spoke to him most directly and forcibly. As this volume went on public display at the British Museum, the Telegraph reported, “The anti-Apartheid prisoners on the island, like so many in every age and nation, found that Shakespeare had a peculiar ability to gentle their condition. They used to gather clandestinely to read the plays; on one occasion, the book was passed around for each man to mark his favourite lines.” Mandela, for example, had himself underscored Julius Caesar’s speech to Calpurnia:

Cowards die many times before their deaths,

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

Mandela explained the power of this volume, years later, saying, “Somehow, Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us.” It is too easy to say that the reliance on familiarity with all the great texts, the written word, those learned analyses, is simply just too Eurocentric to engage with more African forms of leadership. The works that will most successfully serve an African presidential shelf of essential readings will be the ones that reach back to the quality of humanity deemed essential for an appreciation of that so often admired quality of Ubuntu – and in making that, in turn, essential in the art and science of humane and effective governance. DM

Read more:

  • Does Zuma read? Does it matter?, at Synapes
  • Bilderberg group: Fidel Castro’s summer reading, at the Baltimore Sun
  • Tory MPs issued with ‘Cameroonian’ summer reading list, at the Telegraph
  • David Cameron’s Reading List for Summer 2008, at Amazon
  • Tony Blair’s top reads: Tolkien, Trotsky and Treasure Island, at the Guardian
  • Vladimir Putin’s Reading List, at the New Yorker
  • Vladimir Putin’s World War II Reading List at
  • Obama’s summer reading list, at Politico
  • Obama’s Favorite Books, at the Huffingtonpost
  • The Obama Vs. Romney Reading List: Book Bag Presidential Election Edition, at the Daily Beast
  • Nelson Mandela and the greatest book our species has produced, at the Telegraph

Photo by Ginny.


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