President Obama recently told the New York Times Magazine that he had become “sick enough of briefing books to begin reading a novel in the evenings — ‘Netherland,’ by Joseph O’Neill.”
The news that the president was tackling a piece of literary fiction immediately sparked an upswing in demand for the novel, whose author was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award in Washington on Saturday. Sales increased 40 percent, and Vintage Books moved up the paperback release a month, from June 2 to May 7, going back to press for a second printing even before publication.
Might the popular president find himself a literary tastemaker, too? And could the image of a well-read writer-president help further his goal of rehabilitating America’s image in Europe and beyond?
Mr. O’Neill was flattered to discover the president was reading his book. “It’s slightly unreal, isn’t it? Suddenly there’s no space between you and the president, and that’s a very, very odd feeling,” he says. “For this brief moment, this novel swims in a very strong current of history, essentially, which is usually reserved for much bigger fish.”
The author, an Irish immigrant of half-Irish, half-Turkish ancestry who grew up in the Netherlands and lives in New York, became an American citizen just in time to vote for Mr. Obama in the Democratic primary. He adds, though, “I don’t believe in the excessive veneration of the president. This is not a demigod… I’m thrilled about it but don’t want to be seen to be brainlessly awestruck by the whole thing.”
Mr. Obama implied that he had picked up the book as a means of escape. University of Texas government professor Bruce Buchanan suspects he was trying to send the message he still leads a normal life.
“Almost always, there’s going to be forethought whether and why to mention what they’re reading,” Mr. Buchanan says. “All of them know that anything they mention will be interpreted to death.”
In fact, a look at “Netherland” suggests Mr. Obama might have more deliberate reasons for citing the book. The novel is about a Dutch banker living in Manhattan whose marriage to a Brit starts to crumble in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. The former Londoner finds solace in the discovery of a cricket community among West Indian and South Asian immigrants.
It’s no stretch to suspect Mr. Obama might connect to a multicultural tale written by a multicultural writer. He also might want to send a nod to the Muslim world to which he already reached out with his first television interview.
“My book really touches on the marginalized world,” Mr. O’Neill says. “Cultural and ethnic boundaries are under threat in my novel, as they are in the real world. In many ways, President Obama would probably find the book kind of ideologically familiar. It describes a world in which rigid identities are transcended. There’s also a question of intellectual identity. The fossilization of identity and power is something he’s against.”
Fiction certainly can influence presidents and the events of their time as much as nonfiction. Mr. Buchanan recalls that on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”
Theodore Roosevelt was “a voracious reader and author,” he notes. “Probably some of the muckracker things, like Sinclair Lewis, out at the time, would have captured his attention. They were calling attention to the various sins of industry, their exploitation of workers and conditions in meat-packing plants, a big issue of the progressive era.”
Mr. Obama could have more influence on the nation’s reading than his recent predecessors, Mr. Buchanan speculates. “He shares that tendency with John Kennedy,” he says. “Not every president’s reading list is likely to have the impact. Those two presidents are rock stars, for want of a better word.”
The professor recalls, “When I was a kid, I read 007 because John Kennedy liked him.”
Jay Winik knows how Mr. O’Neill feels. His Civil War tome “April 1865” has been read by three presidents — both Bushes and Bill Clinton. George W. Bush was photographed holding a copy not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, and he ended up talking with its author a few times. “He really thought intently about history,” Mr. Winik says.
“April 1865” was a fitting book for a president leading a nation in crisis. “Presidents derive solace as well as insight from how other presidents have navigated through difficult times,” Mr. Winik comments.
Mr. Obama, he notes, looks to Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt for guidance through the current crises. He already has helped sales of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” “enormously,” Mr. Winik points out.
Of “Netherland’s” author, Mr. Winik says, “In Obama, he’s getting a twofer. It’s the president of the United States and a highly successful writer and author to boot. It’s pretty cool.
“Every author wants the president, whoever the president is, to read their book,” he continues. “No matter what party you’re of and what party the president is of, the president is the president for all the American people. And further, the face to the rest of the world.”
That’s why reporters from around the world wanted to talk to Mr. Winik when Mr. Bush was photographed reading his book. They had a rare look inside the mind of a president.
Perhaps, then, by telling the world he’s reading a tale of multinationals coping with the post-Sept. 11 world, Mr. Obama is sending a signal that America is no longer willing to go it alone on the international stage.
Closer to home, Mr. Obama could help make literature cool again. His large base of young supporters might start picking up his reading recommendations that don’t have the word “Lincoln” in the title.
“Laura Bush certainly promoted books and started the festival in D.C.,” notes Russell Perreault, Vintage and Anchor books vice president and director of publicity, referring to the National Book Festival. “It would be fantastic to have someone like President Obama promoting books and reading in general. It’d be fantastic if he’d pick one a month from now — the President Obama Book Club.”
Mr. Perreault recalls that Mrs. Bush told a reporter her husband was reading a D.C.-set thriller by Stephen L. Carter, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.” Most recent presidents didn’t seem to make much time for fiction, though.
“President Bush certainly didn’t [read] many novels; he read mostly history. President Clinton, he read policy books. He was a great policy wonk,” Mr. Winik says.
Isn’t it good for a struggling industry that the president is making time to read a contemporary novel?
“I think it’s nice the president is making time for my contemporary novel,” Mr. O’Neill quips.
More seriously, he continues, “It’s a kind of general trend amongst pragmatically oriented males of a certain age that they drift out to nonfiction. Men in their 40s will do that. They become less susceptible to fiction. He’s the number-one fortysomething-year-old male in the country.”
What he’s signaling to that result-oriented demographic, Mr. O’Neill explains, is that there’s nothing inherently frivolous about fiction.
“If you’re serious about complexity and coming to terms with the contradictions of the world, you would probably read fiction in addition to works of history and political theory,” the novelist says. “The ultimate unit in politics is the human being. Novels identify with our fellow humans and try to understand what they’re about. I think that a president who, in addition to facts and figures, would grasp the human unit in its fictional complexity is an encouraging figure.”