I love reading those articles about the presidential candidates' reading preferences. It seems that revealing their favorite novels has become as expected for the candidates as turning over their income tax filings, and it's presumed to say a lot more about their characters. Many of the articles I've read about this phenomenon have dwelt on the fact that the answers are likely calculated, probably decided upon by a roomful of advisors. That's certainly true, but isn't it also true that all of us have to calculate our responses to the question "What's your favorite book?" If you read a lot, I think it's hard to come up with just one, and even if you can, you tend to think about what that admission will say about you, and revise it accordingly. The author profiles on this web site, in fact, ask you to name two of your favorites, and I agonized over my selection for longer than I care to admit, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for Obama's people to finally confess his love for Song of Solomon.
In an article a few months ago, The New York Times took a very straightforward approach in explaining why there's value in asking the candidates what they like to read: "A Moby-Dick lover may understand the perils of obsessively chasing a goal," they wrote by way of example. But of course this is only true if we can assume a candidate is telling us the absolute truth about what his/her favorite book is, and that's a very big if. If a candidate chooses Moby Dick, they're really just saying they want us to believe they understand the perils of obsession, not that they actually do. I think that's what's interesting about the whole exercise. When Al Gore said he liked The Red and the Black, I didn't wonder why he liked the book and what that said about him, I wondered why he wanted people to think he liked that book (that may not be a good example though, since not enough people knew what the book was about for anyone to discuss it extensively).
Much was made of Mitt Romney's declaration in favor of Battlefield Earth, which was indeed very strange, and the sheer weirdness of his answer might even indicate that it wasn't calculated. Huckabee's answer was probably both true and calculated to affect his core supporters, as he named the Bible and Mere Christianity (an interesting side-story for journalists to look into might be the fact that when candidates are asked for their favorite novels, they often name works that are not actually novels; should it worry us if they don't seem to know what novels are?). Anyway, Huckabee's choice was only surprising in that he didn't name the Left Behind series. McCain chose For Whom the Bell Tolls, and for the sake of verisimilitude he told a long story about how he'd discovered the book as a teenager and decided to model his life after Robert Jordan. I think Hillary Clinton said hers was Little Women. I'm not aware of what Kucinich or Paul said, but my guesses are Animal Farm and The Fountainhead, respectively.
It's an interesting thing to think about anyway--what is the most politically astute answer to this question, if you want people to elect you president? Little Women and Song of Solomon and things of that ilk are done to make sure no damage is done--no one's not going to vote for you because of those selections, but then again they're not going to change the minds of many people in your favor, either. I'd love to see someone name a book that could have that kind of effect, that reminds us how one's decision to embrace a certain novel can in fact indicate something innate in his/her personality. Naked Lunch maybe?