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roosevelt annie holmquistThe Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, was asked to give a list of books he’s reading. As the Los Angeles Times notes, the fact that he couldn’t name the titles suggests that the question caught him off guard. He did give a little information about the books, however:

“I’m reading the Ed Klein book on Hillary Clinton,” Mr. Trump answered, without specifying which one; Mr. Klein has written two, The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She’ll Go to Become President and Unlikeable: The Problem with Hillary.

Mr. Trump then said that he’s reading a book about Richard Nixon, but was unable to recall the title or author, saying, “Well, I’ll get you the exact information on it.”

The Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, was a bit quicker on her feet when asked the same question in 2014. Politico shares that her selections were The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou, and Missing You by Harlan Coben.

Considering the fast-paced campaign schedule these two have, many would call the fact that they’re actually reading something commendable. But that label, “commendable,” might change once we compare their lists to that of Teddy Roosevelt.

In November of 1903, Teddy Roosevelt wrote a letter to Nicholas Murray Butler in which he responded to Butler’s question about the kinds of books a person should read. Roosevelt listed the books he had read during the previous two years of his presidency. Roosevelt was careful to note that he had not always read these books in their entirety, nor was it his first time reading all of them. In spite of this disclaimer, Roosevelt’s list holds more more than one hundred titles.

And those one hundred-plus titles weren’t light reading either. Below are a handful of the more well-known books or authors Roosevelt mentioned:

  1. Herodotus
  2. Thucydides
  3. Polybius
  4. Plutarch
  5. Orestean Trilogy, Aeschylus
  6. Seven Against Thebes, Sophocles [Editor’s note: Roosevelt attributed this play to Sophocles, but it is actually Aeschylus’s, he also could’ve meant Sophocles’s Theban Trilogy]
  7. Hippolytus, Euripides
  8. Bacchae, Euripides
  9. Frogs, Aristophanes
  10. Politics, Aristotle
  11. Essays, Macaulay
  12. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon (Roosevelt is careful to note that he only read three or four volumes.)
  13. Frederick the Great, Carlyle
  14. Speeches and Writings, Lincoln
  15. Essays, Bacon
  16. Macbeth, Shakespeare
  17. Twelfth Night, Shakespeare
  18. Henry the Fourth, Shakespeare
  19. Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare
  20. Richard the Second, Shakespeare
  21. Paradise Lost, Milton
  22. The Inferno, Dante
  23. Beowulf, Church
  24. Quentin Durward, Scott
  25. Tom Sawyer, Twain
  26. Pickwick Papers, Dickens
  27. Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens
  28. Vanity Fair, Thackery
  29. Call of the Wild, London

It’s not hard to see that Roosevelt easily squashes both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump in reading material, both in terms of length and mental depth. But before we condemn the two current nominees, however, perhaps we would do well to realize that they are simply in step with current culture. As Pew Research reported in 2015, almost one in every three Americans did not pick up a book—electronic or print—in the previous year.

If Americans aren’t stretching and informing their minds by reading, should we really be surprised when we end up with the types of candidates, laws, and popular culture that we do?

Every Man has in Politicks as well as Religion, a Right to think and speak and Act for himself. No man either King or Subject, Clergyman or Layman has any Right to dictate to me the Person I shall choose for my Legislator and Ruler. I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any Man judge, unless his Mind has been opened and enlarged by Reading. —John Adams, 1761

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Intellectual Takeout (June 2016).

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5 replies to this post
    • You misunderstand the problem. Universities don’t teach “civilization” or anything resembling a classical education. They teach, primarily, propaganda. From the social “sciences” to the various “studies” (gender, queer, black, women’s, etc), a student trying to obtain a degree in the illiberal arts is bound to get nothing more than an indoctrination.

      STEM does not teach true liberal arts or provide a classical education either, but neither does it indoctrinate to the same degree, because it is hard to propagandize physics and mathematics.

      Now, if a parent refuses to send their child to a true classical university (which are few and far between) because they don’t want their child to “learn civilization”, your point stands, for them. However, if a parent wants their child to avoid crippling student loan debt and indoctrination, your point fails. Likewise, it fails if a parent wants their child simply to have a good career and take care of a family instead of becoming a scholar.

      Conservatives ought to know better than to suggest that two alternatives exist: plebeian STEM work and high classical education. The former is not so lowly as you pretend and the latter is a seldom-seen phantom.

  1. So Trump’s reading two books about politics and Hillary is reading three novels and yet another autobiography by Maya Angelou. Pitiful, and we’re supposed to choose between the two.

    Years ago, moving cross-country from east to west and while passing through Independence, Missouri on a cold and rainy Sunday morning in December, I decided to stop at Truman’s home. My timing could not have been better. Since I was the only visitor, the park service guide gave me a personal tour and let me take as long as I wanted.

    What impressed me most was Truman’s substantial library of serious books, hundreds and hundreds of them. It’s not hard to understand why that former hat salesman did quite good with his foreign policy.

    One of the scariness aspects of this election isn’t what Trump probably likes to read (scandal-mongering) or Hillary (fluffy novels). It’s the fact that even a forced diet of serious books wouldn’t change either. Trump is and will remain a sensation-seeking celebrity. Hillary is and will remain a liar and a cheat who’ll do anything for money….

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace

  2. That’s quite a list TR had. Sadly reading for enjoyment coupled with thought is a declining practice. An understanding of the West and its history is being lost and it won’t be coming back. Much of this I blame on the schools at all levels. It is not coming back, that reading population that was active for most of the 20th century.

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