On the use and abuse of literature for life

Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review carried recommended reading for the presidential candidates by literati and other assorted intellectuals. A few of the contributors, such as Thomas Mallon and Robert Pinsky, offer recommendations that are surprising and instructive. Gore Vidal, in a category of his own, wants the candidates not to read the New York Times. Who can disagree?

By and large, however, the recommendations reveal the contributors to be arrogant, foolish and clichéd. Lorrie Moore, for example, combines all three traits with her recommendations portraying Obama as a political naif, Hillary Clinton as overly ambitious, and John McCain as a fabulator:

For Obama: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. A virtuous orphan is plotted against by a charming, ruthless couple the orphan once trusted and admired.

For Clinton: Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. The timeless tale of how untethered ambition and early predictions may carry a large price tag.

For McCain: Tales From the Brothers Grimm. In case more are needed.

Barbara Kingsolver tosses literature overboard, asserting that “our next president will need to restructure the carbon-based economy, pronto.” Wouldn’t the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf and other pre-carbon economy classics come in handy?

Steven Pinker recycles the Timesian canard that McCain can’t distinguish Shiites from Sunnis. Stacy Schiff at least finds a literary formulation for her criticism of McCain. She recommends Graham Greene’s The Quiet American “as a reminder of the price of idealism, especially in an inflationary era. This is no time to be an innocent abroad.” Five-and-a-half years in assorted prison camps abroad were apparently insufficient for McCain to shed his American innocence.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel asks how the next president will “rebuild a constitutional order dismantled by executive coup in the name of a false security.” The next president must unshackle the doors of The Nation and let the printing presses roll again!

Francine Prose appears to have phoned in her recommendations from Mars. She worries about America’s “periodic eruptions of harsh, punitive Puritanism.”

UPDATE by JOHN: This post became the basis for today’s AOL Hot Seat poll question:

Now that Barack Obama is apparently about to clinch the Democratic nomination, he’ll probably take a vacation. Taking off from Scott’s post here, we asked ourselves: what book does Obama most need to take with him to the beach? That became the basis for today’s AOL Hot Seat poll:

There are several good possibilities, but I’d probably lean toward Kissinger’s Diplomacy, with Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist a close second.

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