Mayor Pete Buttigieg wants you to know he is smart. But like a good politico, he also needs you to understand that underneath the Harvard robe beats the heart of a down-home son of South Bend who never lost sight of his democratic roots, no matter how enticing the environs of Pembroke College, Oxford or the ethically elastic corridors of McKinsey and Company may have once appeared.
How perfectly authentic to his public self, then, was a response provided a Twitter follower who asked him about his favorite book:
“Ulysses by James Joyce. People view it as this inaccessible, mysterious, complicated opus but it’s a very democratic book, about a guy going through life and the incredible depth and meaning to be found in the everyday.”
To be sure, “Ulysses” is a book about a “guy,” Leopold Bloom, going through life (actually, just one day out of his life). But it is also 700 pages long, and full of so many high- and low-brow allusions, puns, puzzles and cryptograms that Cambridge University published a “companion” guide on the grounds that “Few books in the English language seem to demand a companion more insistently than James Joyce’s Ulysses, a work that at once entices and terrifies readers with its interwoven promises of pleasure, scandal, difficulty, and mastery.”
So much for the democratic aspects of the novel.
Now, the reaction to Mayor Pete’s answer was predictable. Some people, myself included, saw through what we took to be a posturing, egalitarian gloss of a text so complex and subtle that one does not fairly enjoy the author as one toils to understand him. Others, like Kevin Dettmar, an English professor at Pomona College, were less glib, and provided helpful nuggets placing Mr. Buttigieg’s Joyceolatry in a familial context (Mayor Pete’s father, Joseph A. Buttigieg, wrote a book on Joyce). But whatever the hot-take, it is all so very boring — and there are more snoozers to come.
You see, as the 2020 race to the White House picks up, expect more intellectual profiles — from the usual suspects — on each of the candidates, no matter how poor their chances. After all, these “think” pieces are grist from the most wonderful mills for journalists and pundits who, too, delight in talking about books they’ve never read.
All of this can feel a little tiresome and confusing. As a former assistant literary editor, I want you to know I feel your pain. And if you bear with me just a few paragraphs longer, I’ll explain a little secret: The literary pretensions of our candidates are a faulty barometer for political success, civic leadership and moral bearing.
In fact, taking the standard list of most learned, well-read presidents — Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Woodrow Wilson, just to name a few — and apply any quality traits, at random, you consider important the leader of the free world possess, and (with all due apologies to Alexander Pope) one quickly realizes that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Bill Clinton, for starters, included Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ” on his list of favorite books. And my, my, how he walked in the way of the Lord; Richard Nixon’s favorite author was Leo Tolstoy, which is simply too much for me to untangle; JFK was a great admirer of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” though modesty forbids me to list his many detours on the way to the Celestial City; and Barack Obama, whose frequent praise of “Self-Reliance” by Emerson, from which we get the famous saying “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” is such a wonderful summation of his presidency that we can leave it at that.
The point is, while only the fool wishes for an unlettered president, literary aptitude and proclivities are no guarantee of political wisdom, and certainly no vouchsafe for wisdom or goodness, simply. Therefore, let us, join with Shakespeare’s Caesar in his warning Marc Antony: “I do not know the man I should avoid so soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much.”
We all know how that story ends.