Fri. Feb 21st, 2020

Obama’s Reading List

Every year for a number of years, President Barack Obama has published his summer reading list, usually with a few words about taking time out to read, and then a few comments about some of the books. He doesn’t look for political books during this time – this is vacation reading, time to take a break. So he reads literature (and he seems to have very good taste in fiction), he reads memoires, history, science, sometimes even poetry.

This year the Washington Post published an article by Ron King about this reading list, and Mr. King could not resist a few political swipes at the current U.S. administration:

Obama didn’t rage against his enemies or attack the pillars of our democracy. He didn’t call anybody a “dog.” He didn’t brag about his own bestsellers — or the size of his book-reading hands.

Instead, he just presented a small window into the mind of a man who appreciates how books can alter the pace of our lives and illuminate the world.

I discovered two books out of the eight or ten on the list were things I had read, and two more which I had considered buying. I have since bought one of those two. I’d like to write today about a book of memoire/autobiography by a woman named Tara Westover. She wrote an amazing although sometimes kind of difficult book , Educated: a Memoir, which Obama writes is “a remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind.”

And so it is. Ms. Westover opens with a beautifully written description of her place, her home in the hills, in a simple but comfortable enough house, with a grandmother living just down the hill and another off in town, a loving family, lots of children, mother interested in natural healing and training to be a midwife. But the father is a fundamentalist, and part of the survivalist agenda is to push to need for self sufficiency with no reliance on any government services. The children do not go to school. After two really horrendous automobile accidents, Ms. Westover’s brothers were not taken to the hospital. They healed at home. As the children became older, the father grew more and more paranoid, feeling that the government was plotting against such families as theirs. The births of none of the younger children were registered.

The first to protest this growing paranoia was Grandma-down-the-hill, who was actually the mother of the paranoid man. Grandma and Grandpa went off every winter for a few months in Arizona, and Grandma really tried to get 9 or 10 year old Tara to agree to go with them, with the promise of putting her in school in Arizona, but the child lost her nerve when the moment came. Some of Ms. Westover’s brothers did go to school and one in particular mentored her and pushed her through exams and applications that eventually sent her to Brigham Young University.

She was probably the most naïve person ever to walk into that University, not having even heard of the Holocaust (to the absolute shock of one Jewish professor). But she was very bright, and she eventually managed to go to Harvard and then Cambridge, both on scholarship. But she struggled with health problems through-out and refused to see government doctors or accept available university funds for student health; in her mind her father was always looking over her shoulder.

Eventually of course she had to break with most of her family, although two or three siblings sided with her in the end. The final break was mostly over the issue of the abuse she and her sisters had received at the hands of one of her really unstable brothers. The father refused to recognize this – his paranoia had grown more and more misogynist – and although the mother had witnessed some of the abuse, she faltered at the idea of going against her husband.

But at the end of the book, Ms. Westover points to another moment of finality. For years she existed as one person, a new person, at school, but whenever she reentered the family house in the hills, she was again her 16 year old self. But one night, after particularly horrendous abuse from her brother, she looked in the bathroom mirror and could not summon up her old compliant self. She says:

Until that moment she had always been there. No matter how much I appeared to have changed – how illustrious my education, how altered my appearance, I was still her. At best I was two people, a fractured mind. She was inside and emerged whenever I crossed the threshold of my father’s house.

That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.

I call it an education.

More about books and education another time.

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