It all started on New Year's Eve in 2005. President Bush asked what my New Year's resolutions were. I told him that as a regular reader who'd gotten out of the habit, my goal was to read a book a week in 2006. Three days later, we were in the Oval Office when he fixed me in his sights and said, "I'm on my second. Where are you?" Mr. Bush had turned my resolution into a contest.(emphasis added)
The president jumped to a slim early lead and remained ahead until March, when I moved decisively in front. The competition soon spun out of control. We kept track not just of books read, but also the number of pages and later the combined size of each book's pages -- its "Total Lateral Area."
We recommended volumes to each other (for example, he encouraged me to read a Mao biography; I suggested a book on Reconstruction's unhappy end). We discussed the books and wrote thank-you notes to some authors.
At year's end, I defeated the president, 110 books to 95. My trophy looks suspiciously like those given out at junior bowling finals. The president lamely insisted he'd lost because he'd been busy as Leader of the Free World.
Mr. Bush's 2006 reading list shows his literary tastes. 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.
Fifty-eight of the books he read that year were nonfiction. Nearly half of his 2006 reading was history and biography, with another eight volumes on current events (mostly the Mideast) and six on sports.
To my surprise, the president demanded a rematch in 2007. Though the overall pace slowed, he once more came in second in our two-man race, reading 51 books to my 76. His list was particularly wide-ranging that year, from history ("The Great Upheaval" and "Khrushchev's Cold War"), biographical (Dean Acheson and Andrew Mellon), and current affairs (including "Rogue Regime" and "The Shia Revival"). He read one book meant for young adults, his daughter Jenna's excellent "Ana's Story."
A glutton for punishment, Mr. Bush insisted on another rematch in 2008. But it will be a three-peat for me: as of today, his total is 40 volumes to my 64. His reading this year included a heavy dose of history -- including David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter," Rick Atkinson's "Day of Battle," [ed. note: am currently reading this and it, as well as its preceding volume in the trilogy, is excellent] Hugh Thomas's "Spanish Civil War," Stephen W. Sears's "Gettysburg" and David King's "Vienna 1814." There's also plenty of biography -- including U.S. Grant's "Personal Memoirs"; Jon Meacham's "American Lion"; James M. McPherson's "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief" and Jacobo Timerman's "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number."
Each year, the president also read the Bible from cover to cover, along with a daily devotional.
The reading competition reveals Mr. Bush's focus on goals. It's not about winning. A good-natured competition helps keep him centered and makes possible a clear mind and a high level of energy. He reads instead of watching TV. He reads on Air Force One and to relax and because he's curious. He reads about the tasks at hand, often picking volumes because of the relevance to his challenges. And he's right: I've won because he has a real job with enormous responsibilities.
In the 35 years I've known George W. Bush, he's always had a book nearby. He 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.
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.
As Christopher Hitchens suggested on that idiot Bill Maher's show recently (h/t Morgan H. also, beware language--f-bombs--and colorful hand signals), it has become the stupid person's easy joke to send up President Bush's supposed lack of intelligence.
This isn't the point of this post, but I don't know many stupid people who read as many books as President Bush.
The point of this point is this: My dad, brother and I have all taken up Evil Genius Karl Rove & President Bush's challenge. We will read a book a week and compete on number of pages read (thus, reading a bunch of children's books won't cut it). And I'm opening up the competition to any of you, dear readers, who would like to join us. Periodically, say, monthly (maybe weekly) I'll update with a list of books and pages read by those who throw their hats in the ring. We can also do mini book reviews.
This is, I think, a good New Year's resolution. Sacrifice a little time every day--time you might have spent watching TV, movies, whatever else you do--and read.
(h/t Matt L., Scott L.)
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