Well, you don’t get an endorsement for reading much better than this: Barack Obama said novels made him a better citizen. That is all the excuse I need to take tomorrow off work and lie in bed reading books all day. It can be frustrating for book-lovers when literature gets sidelined compared to science, and when not everyone totally sees the value in being an English major. (As a Brit, this is a little strange to me; in the U.K., an English degree is considered one of the most respected and employable degrees — as it should be, right?!) So when someone powerful — like, I don’t know, the president of the United States — stands up and confirms how important novels are, it’s a pretty great feeling.
In an interview between Obama and novelist Marilynne Robinson, the president asked if Robinson was worried about people reading fewer novels these days. He went on to explain that novels had played a really big part in his own development. After all, novels taught Obama skills like empathy — which is fairly crucial when it comes to running a country. He then went on to beautifully summarize exactly what makes novels so special.
When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.
Seriously, Obama, I could not agree more.