Reader’s Corner: Obama’s Books

Something unlikely to be seen in the next four years: the President out buying books (Pete Souza)
Something unlikely to be seen in the next four years: the President out buying books (Pete Souza)

No matter what was going on in the world, President Obama always found time to read, preferably for at least an hour a night, according to Michiko Kakutani. This wasn’t just a habit that relaxed him, it also provided grist for the mill:

In today’s polarized environment, where the internet has let people increasingly retreat to their own silos (talking only to like-minded folks, who amplify their certainties and biases), the president sees novels and other art (like the musical Hamilton) as providing a kind of bridge that might span usual divides and ‘a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day.’

He points out, for instance, that the fiction of Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri speak ‘to a very particular contemporary immigration experience,’ but at the same time tell stories about ‘longing for this better place but also feeling displaced’ — a theme central to much of American literature, and not unlike books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow that are ‘steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up.’

You can get a sense of the breadth of his recent reading in his last couple of summer reading lists compiled by the White House:

  • “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan
  • “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
  • “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald
  • “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins
  • “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson
  • “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
  • “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow

It’s a superb mix of literary and popular fiction, along with of-the-comment commentary and even science fiction (who’d have thought the president, any president, would be reading Neal Stephenson?), the kind of list that a particularly good bookseller would have put in your hands if you told them: “What’s good now?”

So, if Obama’s looking for something to do, maybe there’s a bookstore hiring.

Bookmark: Neal Stephenson’s ‘Seveneves’

In 'Seveneves,' this blows up ... and everything changes. (NASA)
In ‘Seveneves,’ this blows up … and everything changes. (NASA)
Last week, Neal Stephenson released his latest novel, a big-thinking plot about the end of the world and a possible new start for the human race. Seveneves is another doorstopper of a piece, so in that sense right in line with just about everything he’s written since the 1990s. In many other ways, however—particularly in being a return to full-fledged science fiction and also curiously (for him) devoid of humor—this is an entirely new direction for the author of Snow Crash.

seveneves-coverMy take on the book and the arc of Stephenson’s career can be read at The Millions.

You can read the first couple dozen pages of Seveneves at Stephenson’s site here. This is how it starts:

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero…

Weekend Reading: May 15, 2015

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Reader’s Corner: Great Otherworldly Librarians

(Courtesy DC Comics)
Batgirl, when she’s not shelving (courtesy DC Comics)

Readers of genre fiction—particularly science fiction and fantasy—have a special place in their hearts for bookstores, libraries, and other (preferably dark and quiet) repositories of the written word. While librarians would seem to most like a prickly breed, they tend to show up in works of the fantastic as heroes, or at least very valuable allies.

Thanks to the smart folks at Tor, here’s a look at some of the more awesome fantasy/sci-fi librarians, ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Sandman comics.

It’s a solid list, all in all (even if it does miss out on the omnisciently Jeeves-ian Librarian from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash), though they do pale in comparison to Barbara Gordon, the occasional librarian otherwise known as Batgirl.