Reading between the lines of candidates' favorite books





If we are what we read, then the books the presidential candidates claim to hold dear present clues to their character. Or do they?

Among John McCain's favorite books, culled from news reports, are "For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway, "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Maria Remarque and Edward Gibbon's "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

According to Barack Obama's Facebook profile, his favorite books include "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison, "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance."

We asked a handful of Bay Area authors for their response to the lists; their answers follow.

Susan Griffin, author of "Wrestling With the Angel of Democracy" and "A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War":

A novel depicting warfare, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" may seem an obvious pick for McCain, were it not for the fact that the hero, Robert Jordan, eventually confronts the absurdity of war. Or that, as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War, this hero would have been labeled socialist or anti-American by the right wing. (Even more ironic, this hero fears that the wealthy in America might turn to fascism out of an objection to being taxed!) McCain's second choice, "All Quiet on the Western Front," by a German veteran of the First World War, also captures the meaninglessness of war.

And "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"? We may be witnessing a similar decline in our own fortunes today, yet Gibbon does not fault war but the lack of manliness in Roman society, brought about partly because of, guess what, the pacifism preached by Christianity. This strange conglomeration leads me to wonder if the confusion McCain has displayed throughout his campaign may reflect a profound inner ambivalence.

Obama's choice of "Song of Solomon," a novel about a man who, while searching for gold, gains an understanding of his roots and sense of community and thus finds his own soul, mirrors in subtle measure the choices of a man who, upon graduating with honor from Harvard Law, chose to work with community organizations in the South Side of Chicago instead of accepting a more lucrative appointment.

This book uses myth and metaphor to bring out many different levels of meaning, as does "Moby-Dick." Captain Ahab's madly compulsive pursuit can be read as a mirror of the self-destructive path the Bush administration has taken during the last eight years. Hopefully, Obama can read our current crises on many levels, too, and give us the complex, nuanced understanding we so badly need. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Emerson's essay is not about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps but on the independence of heart, spirit and mind that is aligned with integrity. And that choice speaks for itself....


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