What to read to un­der­stand the next four years.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post. Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP

Don­ald Trump is making Amer­ica read again.

It started dur­ing the cam­paign, when J.D. Vance’s “Hill­billy El­egy” be­came the go-to text ex­plain­ing Trump’s ap­peal among low-in­come white vot­ers. It con­tin­ued last month, when a pub­lic spat be­tween Trump and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) boosted sales of Lewis’s tril­ogy, “March,” and mem­oir, “Walk­ing With the Wind.” And then came the dystopian-fic­tion craze, when Trump ad­viser Kellyanne Con­way im­mor­tal­ized her­self in Amer­ica’s po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con by de­scrib­ing White House false­hoods as “al­ter­na­tive facts” — and Ge­orge Or­well’s “1984” shot to the top of Ama­zon’s sales rank­ing.

A pres­i­dent who rarely cracks books has un­wit­tingly launched a book club for Amer­ica. Ev­ery feud, ev­ery out­rage, ev­ery did-he-re­ally-just-do-that episode pro­pels a new lit­er­ary dis­cus­sion. In the months since the elec­tion, I’ve fre­quently been asked to sug­gest books ex­plain­ing the con­vul­sions of the Trump era. The ques­tion has even in­spired me to start a book group of my own; the quest for in­sight is al­ways bet­ter in good com­pany.

As with any book club, na­tional or per­sonal, the key ques­tion is what book comes next — a more ur­gent mat­ter now that those choices ap­pear to re­flect the po­lit­i­cal fears, griev­ances and as­pi­ra­tions of Amer­ica’s cit­i­zen-read­ers.

Trump clearly grasps the cul­tural al­lure of books. He has au­thored more than a dozen of them (I hes­i­tate to use the word “writ­ten”) and launched his cam­paign declar­ing that “we need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ ” That book is as much a part of his brand as “The Ap­pren­tice” or Trump Tower. Maybe more.

Yet, while crit­ics gushed over his pre­de­ces­sor’s love of the writ­ten word, Trump doesn’t mind be­ing pegged as a lit­er­ary light­weight — it’s just one more way to knock those coastal elites he sup­pos­edly dis­dains. Trump has freely ad­mit­ted to not read­ing books, de­vot­ing in­stead end­less hours to cable news. “I’m watch­ing you all the time!” he told Megyn Kelly in a May 2016 Fox News in­ter­view. “I’m watch­ing O’Reilly all the time. I’m watch­ing Han­nity . . . . I would love to sit down and read a book, but I just don’t have the time any­more.” (Some­one should in­tro­duce him to C-SPAN’s BookTV.)

The scoff­ing about Trump’s lit­er­ary in­dif­fer­ence has been end­less. “Don­ald Trump Is ‘Too Busy’ To Read Books,” sniffed the Huff­in­g­ton Post on the eve of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion. “Sad.” And when Trump told the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter that he was re-read­ing “All Quiet on the Western Front,” jour­nal­ist Michael Wolff winked that it was prob­a­bly a book Trump sud­denly re­mem­bered from high school.

But of all the con­cerns I have about the new pres­i­dent — and the list is mighty — a sparse book­shelf is hardly fore­most, and ev­ery earnest ap­peal for “the one book Trump should read right now!” makes me smile. De­vel­op­ing a per­sonal or in­tel­lec­tual sen­si­bil­ity through books is the work of a life­time, not some­thing you pick up at age 70 when you’ve just plunged into the mael­strom of the pres­i­dency. And as The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Marc Fisher has re­ported, “There is no clear cor­re­la­tion be­tween stu­dious pres­i­dents and suc­cess in the of­fice.”

Sure, I wish Trump read more books. But at this point I’d set­tle for him read­ing his brief­ing books. Or the Con­sti­tu­tion.

We have of­ten looked to the book choices of our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers as a win­dow into their minds and pol­icy pref­er­ences — and at times they have been, for bet­ter or worse. For in­stance, Jimmy Carter’s fas­ci­na­tion with the ideas of Christo­pher Lasch, au­thor of the 1979 best­seller “The Cul­ture of Nar­cis­sism,” was part of the im­pe­tus be­hind Carter’s ill-fated “cri­sis of con­fi­dence” speech, for­ever link­ing the 39th pres­i­dent to the no­tion of Amer­i­can malaise. And the New Yorker’s mas­sive 1963 re­view of Michael Har­ring­ton’s “The Other Amer­ica” helped get the Pres­i­dent Kennedy fo­cused on the poor, lead­ing to LBJ’s War on Poverty.

In his 2013 his­tory of pop­u­lar cul­ture in the White House, Tevi Troy cited Abra­ham Lin­coln as an ex­am­ple of a self-taught, book­ish man whose as­cent to the pres­i­dency made the of­fice more re­lat­able. “The com­bi­na­tion of hum­ble ori­gins and prodi­gious learn­ing makes Lin­coln an ir­re­sistibly ap­peal­ing fig­ure,” Troy writes. “If Lin­coln can do it, politi­cians and cit­i­zens alike may think, so can I.”

Trump’s con­nec­tion with vot­ers is forged not through lit­er­a­ture but on Twit­ter — that’s the win­dow into his think­ing — so it’s in­trigu­ing that peo­ple are us­ing books to grasp, in­ter­pret or game out the Trump phe­nom­e­non. Dur­ing the cam­paign, the sub­ject of ru­ral white vot­ers emerged as a pub­lish­ing and jour­nal­is­tic ob­ses­sion. Be­yond “Hill­billy El­egy,” works such as Nancy Isen­berg’s “White Trash” and Ar­lie Rus­sell Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land” grap­pled with the his­tory and at­ti­tudes of the white Amer­i­can un­der­class, while Carol An­der­son’s “White Rage” ar­gued that ev­ery era of black progress pro­duced a back­lash from en­trenched white in­ter­ests. All be­came best­sellers dur­ing Trump’s as­cent.

Now with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion un­der­way, Or­well’s “1984” is but one of sev­eral dystopian clas­sics to re­gain cur­rency. Sin­clair Lewis’s “It Can’t Hap­pen Here,” the tale of a bum­bling, re­pres­sive and demo­crat­i­cally elected Amer­i­can fas­cist, has reached Ama­zon’s top 20. Same for Mar­garet At­wood’s “The Hand­maid’s Tale,” helped by the forth­com­ing Hulu adap­ta­tion of the book. Or­well’s “An­i­mal Farm” is a Wash­ing­ton Post pa­per­back best­seller.

The shift is telling. With “1984” sur­pass­ing “Hill­billy El­egy” on Ama­zon, it seems we’ve grown less in­ter­ested in re­flect­ing on how we got here and more in fig­ur­ing out where we’re headed.

What genre might come next? I imag­ine many non­fic­tion book pro­pos­als are be­ing shopped around, promis­ing the in­side story of the Trump pres­i­dency (work­ing ti­tle: “Amer­i­can Car­nage”). The resur­gent far right may have its lit­er­ary mo­ment, too; see how “Dan­ger­ous” by Bre­it­bart’s Milo Yiannopou­los is gain­ing strength in ad­vance of next month’s pub­li­ca­tion. But I’d bet po­lit­i­cal satire will gain promi­nence, par­tic­u­larly with a vain, thin-skinned pres­i­dent as its tar­get. Al­ready, British novelist Howard Jacobson, win­ner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, is pub­lish­ing a Trump-in­spired satire this April ti­tled “Pussy,” which he wrote in a “fury of dis­be­lief” af­ter the Novem­ber bal­lot. Trump’s sen­si­tiv­ity to “Satur­day Night Live” skits shows that this is fer­tile ter­ri­tory and, as Han­nah Arendt ar­gued, ridicule weak­ens the aura sur­round­ing strong­men, un­der­cut­ting their pre­ten­sions of great­ness and his­tory.

Oh, and Arendt’s “The Ori­gins of To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism” has been sell­ing well.

Trump does read some books, or at least claims to. Last sum­mer, for in­stance, he touted Ed­ward Klein’s “Un­like­able: The Prob­lem With Hil­lary.” And in 2015 he raved over Ann Coul­ter’s sub­tly ti­tled “Adios, Amer­ica: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Coun­try Into a Third World Hell­hole.” In fact, Trump’s ini­tial cam­paign re­marks about Mex­i­can drug deal­ers and rapists were prob­a­bly in­spired by Coul­ter’s book, which he hailed as “a great read” just three weeks be­fore an­nounc­ing his can­di­dacy.

Those are not ex­actly works that ease the minds of Trump’s op­po­nents. It’s not enough that pres­i­dents read books, crit­ics in­sist; they must read the right ones. For in­stance, when ad­viser Karl Rove dis­closed Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s heavy read­ing habits in a 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Richard Cohen chided the pres­i­dent for turn­ing to books that reaf­firmed his choices and world­view. “Bush has al­ways been the cap­tive of fixed ideas,” Cohen wrote. “His books just sup­port that.”

The wis­dom-of-crowds ap­proach, re­flected in best­seller lists, is one way to find books that give us per­spec­tive, strat­egy or com­fort in un­cer­tain times. But even then, it’s hard to break free of our po­lit­i­cal si­los. Af­ter all, the read­ers grav­i­tat­ing to­ward “1984” are prob­a­bly not the same ones or­der­ing pre­sale copies of “Dan­ger­ous.” In the com­ing days I’ll start gath­er­ing with a few jour­nal­ists, aca­demics and wonks to try to iden­tify, read and dis­cuss var­ied works that help us un­der­stand, as Trump might say, what the hell is go­ing on. (We’re kick­ing off with Pankaj Mishra’s “Age of Anger,” which sounds about right.)

So if you’ve re­dis­cov­ered an old book that speaks to our new po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties, if you’re a pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment sud­denly re­think­ing your as­signed read­ings, if you’re find­ing new books in other lan­guages that imag­ine where the United States and the world are headed, please share your picks widely — and let me know. And, yes, if you’re writ­ing that one book that some­how ex­plains it all, I want to be the first to hear about it.

2017 has ush­ered in the Trump pres­i­dency — and now the Trump’s Amer­ica Book Club. I hope you’ll join.


Pres­i­dent Trump has in­spired new in­ter­est in books about the white work­ing class, civil rights fig­ures and dystopian so­ci­eties.

Car­los Lozada

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