“President Donald Trump doesn’t read.” So began a recent piece in the Tribune-Herald by Bloomberg Opinion columnist Al Hunt.
I was immediately reminded of a passage from William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel, “Vanity Fair.” It is a description of his character, Sir Pitt.
Here was a man, who could not spell, and did not care to read — who had the habits and the cunning of a boor . . . who never had a taste, or emotion, or enjoyment, except what was sordid and foul; and yet he had rank, and honors, and power, somehow: and was a dignitary of the land, and a pillar of the state. He was High Sheriff, and rode in a golden coach. Great ministers and statesmen courted him; and . . . he had a higher place than the most brilliant genius of spotless virtue.
Why should we care that the “high sheriff” does not read? Why should it matter that he doesn’t even want to read? Let me count the “whys.” Actually let me count two: two reasons why we should care that the “high sheriff” does not read.
In the Hunt piece referenced above, he also adds that Trump doesn’t study history either. Reading and studying go together, of course. The most obvious way to study history is to read history. So one serious reason for caring that the “high sheriff” does not read is that it means that the “high sheriff” does not know history; that this is true of Trump should be of serious concern to all of us, including, I hope, Trump supporters.
Not all of us have the time, the inclination, or the moral obligation even, to read, for example, the founding documents of democracy or of liberalism or conservatism. But to lead a political party and not to have read at least some of Edmund Burke or Adam Smith or John Locke, or our own classical political documents such as the Federalist Papers is, as Roger Scruton of the New York Times put it, to try to lead by “bypassing the realm of ideas entirely, to try to lead without a filter of educated argument.”
In the new biography of Winston Churchill by Andrew Roberts, recently a guest speaker at McLennan Community College, Churchill is quoted as saying to an American student: “Study history, study history. In history lie all of the secrets of statecraft.” Conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, how desperately we should long for leaders capable of high quality statecraft. This won’t happen with a leader who has no deep understanding of history, an understanding that can only come from serious reading.
A second quality of leadership, maybe an even more important one, that we should deeply desire in a political leader and that can be elicited by and enhanced by reading is empathy: the ability to identify with the other, to enter into the consciousness of the other.
We often think of some version of the golden rule as the fundamental moral imperative: do unto others, as you would have others do unto you. The motivation for actually doing this is the ability to feel with the other, to empathize.
It is not far-fetched to argue that morality itself grows out of empathy, and while empathy surely has multiple roots, perhaps nothing is superior to reading to increase our ability to see life from another’s point of view. Reading has the ability to take us outside of ourselves into other people’s heads and hearts, so that the situation of the other can be seen through the eyes of the other.
In her book “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin describes Abraham Lincoln as “possessing extraordinary empathy, the gift or curse [because of the pain involved] of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.” Even a cursory examination of the reading life of Lincoln leads to the conclusion that it was such reading that both led to his capacity for empathy and to his ability to express that empathy in his own writings: consider the Emancipation Proclamation or the Gettysburg Address.
If moral transformation is the goal, a case could be made for reading great novels, works that stimulate the moral imagination and the ability to identify with the plight of the other. Again, cannot we, opponents and supporters alike, wish for the “high sheriff” a habit of reading; the discipline of reading that stimulates moral imagination and empathy.
When recently asked, what is the most important activity in life, Harold Bloom, one of the most prominent American academicians, replied: reading. I know, I know, that might be expected from a Professor of English at Yale University. But still, don’t we all wish that the “high sheriff” read, at least a little?