President Obama has just returned from summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, a trip that apparently didn’t include a visit to the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven. Visits to the store in previous summers became media events as journalists eagerly reported the president’s purchases for clues about his thinking.
Obama’s absence from Bunch of Grapes this summer prompted Zach Schonfeld of The Atlantic Wire to wonder aloud if the president had dissed independent bookstore owners once again. Obama recently ruffled the feathers of the independent bookstore industry by visiting an Amazon warehouse in Tennessee.
Schonfeld quotes a critic of the president who asked, after the president skipped his Bunch of Grapes visit, if Obama had ordered his books online instead.
Here’s another possible reason why the president didn’t make public book shopping a part of his most recent summer vacation: Maybe Obama didn’t relish the prospect of picking out books with the rest of the world looking over his shoulder. Does that seem like much fun to anyone else?
As an avid reader as well as a professional journalist, I have mixed feelings about the tradition of reporting what a president reads during the summer or any other time of the year.
I’m a firm believer in government transparency, generally assuming that a government leader’s life should be, to pardon the pun, an open book.
I’ve also been heartened by the possibility that in sharing their literary tastes, our commanders-in-chief can be influential readers-in-chief, inspiring other Americans to read for pleasure. I said as much in a Monitor piece last year urging Americans to watch closely what presidential candidates were reading.
“As they go to the polls to decide the next leader of the free world, Americans would be wise to remember a proverbial directive: 'Show me the books you read, and I’ll show you who you are,'” I wrote back then.
But as I consider my own reading life, I’ve been forced to consider how discouraging it would be to browse for books with even one person watching me – much less, the rest of the world. In my family, we follow a strict no-hovering policy when we visit the local library or bookstore together. I want my 17-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son to experience the freedom of intellectual discovery, and they can’t do that very well if Mom or Dad are acting as their literary hall monitors while they shop.
I also encourage my children to let me browse the aisles undisturbed, too. I don’t like having to justify my possible book purchases to anyone else while I’m exploring the shelves.
What I’ve come to learn over the years is that book browsing, properly embraced, is not merely an act of commerce but an act of communion – a distinctly private meeting between reader and writer that loses its intimacy when it’s open to another set of eyes. In book browsing as in dating, in other words, three’s a crowd.
Which is why, when I routinely read about what the president hauled home from the bookstore – and I do read such stories eagerly – I’ve begun to feel like a voyeur, an intruder into an intimate scene.
Maybe the president was right to skip the bookstore during his summer vacation. Here’s hoping for the day, perhaps after he leaves office, when he can once again browse for books in peace.