The secret literary life of George W. Bush

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It is perhaps something they should have told us sooner: George W. Bush is a voracious reader. "In the 35 years I've known George W. Bush, he's always had a book nearby," writes Karl Rove in last weekend's Wall Street Journal.

"[Bush] plays up being a good ol' boy from Midland, Texas, but he was a history major at Yale and graduated from Harvard Business School. You don't make it through either unless you are a reader," Rove insists.

"There is a myth perpetuated by Bush critics that he would rather burn a book than read one. Like so many caricatures of the past eight years, this one is not only wrong, but also the opposite of the truth and evidence that bitterness can devour a small-minded critic. Mr. Bush loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them. "

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Apparently Rove and Bush had a reading contest going since early 2006. Although in the end, Rove read more titles than did the president, Rove says that Bush has devoured hundreds of books (including reading the Bible all the way through each year.)

Some of the titles that Rove says Bush read during the period of their contest include the following: "The nonfiction ran from biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, King Leopold, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, LBJ and Genghis Khan to Andrew Roberts's 'A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900,' James L. Swanson's 'Manhunt,' and Nathaniel Philbrick's 'Mayflower' Besides eight Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald, Mr. Bush tackled Michael Crichton's 'Next,' Vince Flynn's 'Executive Power,' Stephen Hunter's 'Point of Impact,' and Albert Camus's 'The Stranger,' among others."

It's an impressive list. I get paid to read and consequently go through many titles a year but I'm still impressed.

However, the revelation of this surprising bent for reading is not earning the president much good press.

"The books themselves reveal — actually, confirm — something about Bush that maybe Rove did not intend,"  writes Richard Cohen in the San Jose Mercury News. "They are not the reading of a widely read man, but instead the books of a man who seeks — and sees – vindication in every page. Bush has always been the captive of fixed ideas. His books just support that."

In the Atlantic Monthly:  "I did that same contest at the local library – when I was six. Anyone who actually reads books knows that reading the words off the page is half the job, at best. The hard part is digesting the book, getting to its essential themes and then weighing them against your own body of knowledge.... Only a rookie would set that sort of goal – and then brag about it. Either that or, you know, someone who doesn't really read."

There are also those who have questioned the numbers and doubted the veracity of Rove's report.

I'm not among them. I have never bought into the anti-intellectual image Bush has cultivated for himself and I have no reason to doubt that he read and enjoyed all of the above titles.

But what does resonate for me is this comment on the reader blog of seattlepi.com: "If Bush and Rove truly wanted to share their passion for reading and love of books they could have been a lot more vocal about it. Think of the online book social network and community building possibilities? Think of all that potential and needed revenue for authors and publishers that could have been had if they would have shared their reading lists with the public."

I'm not so interested in the thought of lost publishing revenues as I am in the status of reading in this country. If the president values books and the pursuit of knowledge in them, that would have been a good thing for young readers to know. Actually, it would have been a good thing for students of all ages to know.

It would have been a good thing for the country to know. And it could only have helped Bush's image.

So I have no problem with Rove's announcement that Bush is a reader. I just wish we had known sooner.

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