By all reports, our current President is not a reader. President Trump’s many gaffes in statements about American history and his glaring lack of contextual knowledge about political, religious, and many other topics all suggest he is not a reader or a reflective individual. Many of our Presidents have been avid readers. Kevin J. Hayes, George Washington: A Life in Books (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) tells us about our first President’s interests in reading.
George Washington has generally not been recognized as one of the more intellectual founders of our nation, seen more as a man of action and practical application, but, in fact, he loved reading and owning books. He believed that studying was an important activity to be done through life, not just in his youth. As it was for many of the Revolutionary generation, Washington read with particular aims in mind, such as running his plantation, understanding politics and economics, but also for leisure and recreation.
For those interested in archives, Hayes provides many references to manuscripts and various sorts of documents. Washington’s library was full of pigeonholes where he stored personal papers extending back to his adolescence (p. 16). Washington maintained journals and was a dedicated letter writer, and his writing was clear and often powerful, no doubt a result of his reading habits. Washington was also a careful bibliographer, who kept a record of his book acquisitions and books given to him as gifts or as part of inheritances. Hayes describes how after the Revolutionary war ended, Washington brought back to Mt. Vernon a “vast amount of personal and professional writings, many carefully recorded in letter books, all with an eye towards helping to document the founding of the new nation (pp. 215-216). Even during Washington’s lifetime, individuals came to Mt. Vernon to consult his papers, along with painters and sculptors seeking to capture likenesses of the Revolutionary leader. And there was also publication of selections of his letters before his death. There is no doubt that reading had a substantial impact on Washington’s writing ability, enabling him to compose such classic documents as his Farewell Address. When he was on his deathbed, Washington instructed one of his aides to care for his “letters, papers, and financial accounts” (p. 312). Given our current President’s activities, it is difficult to imagine him doing anything but ordering the concealment or destruction of his archives; he is more fixated on seeing his name on hotels, golf courses, and other economic ventures.
All of this is quite a contrast to President Trump who seems to be obsessed with watching cable news, surrounding himself with advisors who will only tell him what he wants to hear, and reacting quickly and emotionally with Twitter messages when he feels offended or questioned. Trump has not and will not compose anything of worth; Twitter does not lend itself to that.
Among Hayes’s conclusions is this: “Books form an essential part of the history of the US presidency” (p. 287). At least they did until the present chief executive. We can get a sense of President Trump’s priorities by examining his just released federal budget proposal. As SAA reported, “ The Trump Administration on May 23 released a Presidential Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2018 (under the moniker “A New Foundation for American Greatness”) that would ultimately eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The proposal also would zero out FY 2018 funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and cut funding for the National Archives and Records Administration by $16.6 million.” There are a lot of other harsh realities in this budget, but I just want to emphasize this President’s utter disregard for arts and history, the result of a life of not reading (at least as far as I can tell). Rebecca Solnit, in her book about hope and despair, writes, “Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change”; Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), p. xix. I contend that amnesia can result from a purposeful avoidance of reading and reflection.