Written by Abby Adamo
As the literary journal of the English department at the University of Texas at Austin, we at Hothouse may be a little biased when it comes to our preference for presidents who can, you know, read. Literacy tends to be pretty high on the list of Fearless-Leader job requirements, but as the Washington Post noted, there have been historical exceptions: most notably Zachary Taylor—who may or may not have been able write—and now, fantastically, our own Donald Trump. It may be unfair to suggest that the man is actually illiterate; after all, from what other mind could The Art of the Deal truly have come? But there have been reports since the early days of the Trump presidency that while perhaps he is able to, the Commander in Chief is almost entirely unwilling to read policy, reports, news—basically anything other than the odd 140-character tweet.
Mocked by late-night hosts since the beginning of his term for the special reports he receives, which are often laced with compliments to hold his attention, the criticisms came to a recent climax with the release of Michael Wolff’s tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. In what may be the most meme-able quote of 2018 thus far, Trump responded to accusations of mental instability with the assurance that he is actually “a very stable genius” (available in t-shirt form here). While this may not have convinced everyone of his stability, at the very least it proved his consistency, parroting the tune of a 2013 tweet where he announced, “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure,it’s not your fault.” Well, at least we aren’t to blame!
Historically, the reading ability of American presidents ranges from fairly unremarkable to downright brilliant. Both Roosevelts are cited as the top-tier examples of presidential readers, with Teddy exceeding everybody through his diet of one book a day (and up to three on slow days). Jimmy Carter is also notable for his speed-reading abilities and he’s written almost thirty books, so it’s fair to say he’s likely a speed writer as well. Both John and John Quincy Adams make the top ten lists for their intellect and large libraries. Of course, Thomas Jefferson takes the cake when it comes to presidents who read foreign books: he could read in four different languages. Abraham Lincoln is up there too, along with George Washington and Woodrow Wilson, all according to the Daily Beast. Only time will tell how the priorities of a nation are influenced by the type of literature and media consumed by its Chief of State. While many brilliant readers naturally proved themselves to be brilliant leaders, the opposite is also true—James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon were all enthusiastic lovers of literature. Maybe there’s no telling, but I’ll leave you with Trump’s own defense: “despite the negative press covfefe.”