The following conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson was conducted in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14. An audio recording of the conversation can be heard at itunes.com/nybooks. The first part appeared in the November 5 issue of The New York Review.
The President: Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.
And so I wonder when you’re sitting there writing longhand in some—your messy longhand somewhere—so I wonder whether you feel as if that same shared culture is as prevalent and as important in the lives of people as it was, say, when you were that little girl in Idaho, coming up, or whether you feel as if those voices have been overwhelmed by flashier ways to pass the time.
Marilynne Robinson: I’m not really the person—because I’m almost always talking with people who love books.
The President: Right. You sort of have a self-selecting crew.
Robinson: And also teaching writers—I’m quite aware of the publication of new writers. I think—I mean, the literature at present is full to bursting. No book can sell in that way that Gone with the Wind sold, or something like that. But the thing that’s wonderful about it is that there’s an incredible variety of voices in contemporary writing. You know people say, is there an American tradition surviving in literature, and yes, our tradition is the incredible variety of voices….
And [now] you don’t get the conversation that would support the literary life. I think that’s one of the things that has made book clubs so popular.
The President: That’s interesting. Part of the challenge is—and I see this in our politics—is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is…
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