MADELEINE BRAND, host:
President Bush spent his summer vacation reading The Stranger by French writer Albert Camus. It's a slim volume about a young man who is totally indifferent to everything in life, including his murder of an Arab man. We're not sure why The Stranger was on the president's summer reading list, but we do know it's still read by a lot of high school students, more than 60 years after its publication.
And now we turn to Jim Asher to find out why. He's the chair of the English department at South Pasadena High School here in southern California. Can you give us the Cliffs Notes version of the plot?
Mr. JIM ASHER (English Department, South Pasadena High School): Basically it's about a main character, Meursault, who is really detached. You learn from the very beginning of the book that he's very detached from life in some ways. His mother has just died, and he seems to be very detached from that. He's detached from his friendships. He ends up getting involved with a woman who wants to marry him, and he says oh, why not. You know, he'll just go along with it.
This is a very, very quick summary, by the way. But he ends up killing an Arab on the beach himself. The first shot of the gun is just a reaction, but the next four shots is really deliberate. So he ends up being on trial, and the courtroom scene really becomes sort of a metaphor or a symbol of the absurdity of life. And at the end of the book, he ultimately realizes that he was right in his absurdity, his view of absurdity, and that he's really a brother with the absurdity of the universe.
It forces a really good discussion. I think that kids ultimately realized that what we really have to do is rebel against the absurdity of the world, so I think in that sense it would be a good book for students to read today, particularly with all the craziness going on in the Middle East.
BRAND: And do you think it's a good book for the president to read?
Mr. ASHER: It makes one sort of confront the relationship of the Western world to the Arab world because this conflict in the book takes place in Algiers, the capital of Algeria at that time, and you know, it's cast against the beginnings of World War II. And you seen then, you know, the nature of the relationship the Western world has sort of had with the Arab world. Yeah, I think it - for President Bush that would be something definitely worth examining.
BRAND: Well, a lot of people have said that this is a book about existential angst, it's a book that says there is no meaning in the world except the meaning you create yourself, there is no God. Camus was a famous athiest. Does it strike you a little bit unusual for the president, who is a well-known God-fearing man to be reading this book?
Mr. ASHER: No, I don't think so because I think any time you examine the meaning of it all, you know, the meaning of life, it's a good thing. And I think it has a positive message at the end, too, that really we have to rebel against this idea that the world is absurd and that everything is meaningless and we're all just sort of doing our thing, but it's not really adding up to much of anything. I think one needs to feel a sense of conviction about things. You also don't want to feel that you're a victim in this world, that, you know, you're really part of it, that you're in this world, and that's sort of how you escape the absurdity of it all.
BRAND: Jim Asher is chair of South Pasadena High's English department. Thank you very much for making sense of it all.
Mr. ASHER: It was a pleasure.