Classic Lit No Longer Makes The Grade Among Leaders Leaders no longer turn to classic literature for wisdom and guidance. NPR producer Brent Baughman speaks with Charles Hill of Yale University about what they used to read -- and why they don't anymore.
NPR logo

Classic Lit No Longer Makes The Grade Among Leaders

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129348377/129348440" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Classic Lit No Longer Makes The Grade Among Leaders

Classic Lit No Longer Makes The Grade Among Leaders

Classic Lit No Longer Makes The Grade Among Leaders

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129348377/129348440" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Leaders no longer turn to classic literature for wisdom and guidance. NPR producer Brent Baughman speaks with Charles Hill of Yale University about what they used to read — and why they don't anymore.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

President Obama's doing some reading this weekend. At the start of his Martha's Vineyard vacation, the president stopped at a local bookstore to pick up a copy of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom." But commanders-in-chief don't read much fiction, or classics anymore, says Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Mr. TEVI TROY (Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute): Over the last 50 years, presidential reading has been much less about the classics, less likely to be about literature in general.

CORNISH: For more on why world leaders are turning away from the classics, here's one of our producers, Brent Baughman.

Hey there, Brent.

BRENT BAUGHMAN: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: Okay. So we're not just talking about why you and I don't read enough classic literature. We're talking about world leaders, statesmen.

BAUGHMAN: Right. And we're going to start with this story from Charles Hill.

Mr. CHARLES HILL: People call me Charlie.

CORNISH: And who is he?

BAUGHMAN: He teaches at Yale today but in the early '70s, he was a foreign service officer during the cultural revolution, under General Mao Tse Tung. This is an old Red Army song from that time, by the way. Charlie Hill was working at the U.S. embassy in Saigon. It was the height of the Cold War. And then, February 21, 1972, Richard Nixon goes to China.

Unidentified Man: Well, it's been about nine hours since President Nixon's plane, Air Force I, touched down in Peking.

BAUGHMAN: And Charlie Hill was back at his desk in the embassy, listening to the radio.

Mr. HILL: They were relaying the broadcast of Nixon's arrival in China.

Unidentified Man: The president came out, and there's the handshake.

BAUGHMAN: And then on to the meeting of Kissinger and Nixon with Chairman Mao.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing foreign language)

Mr. HILL: The photograph of that meeting absolutely astonished me because there was Kissinger and Nixon and Mao, and all around Mao were shelves and shelves and piles of books.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HILL: It suddenly struck me that he had destroyed, or attempted to destroy, all the books in China but kept his own little library - not a little library, pretty big library. Kissinger later, when he wrote his memoir, he said manuscripts lined bookshelves along every wall. Books covered the table and the floor. It looked more like the retreat of a scholar than the audience room of the all-powerful leader of the world's most populist nation.

Here was this dictator of this gigantic nation, and he felt very strongly about the importance of reading classical works.

BAUGHMAN: We don't know everything Mao had in his library. But for an idea of what we mean by classical works, Charlie Hill has a short list.

Mr. HILL: Of course, you start with "Homer," "The Iliad," "Three," Machiavelli, "Don Quixote," "Spy Swift..."

(Soundbite of Mr. Hill reading book titles)

BAUGHMAN: Basically all the things you never read in AP English class. And leaders really did used to read that stuff. Alexander the Great, for instance, used to sleep with "The Iliad" under his pillow.

Mr. HILL: Yes. Supposedly in a jeweled casket with a dagger, with the assumption in "The Iliad," he would find the best insights about military life. Queen Elizabeth took some of her strategy from Cicero. John Adams read (unintelligible) and apparently read it in Greek, and noted that he was doing so because it was a way to get at human nature.

These works of literature do tell you about human nature. How you think about human nature is a major starting point for a grand strategist.

BAUGHMAN: So at this point, you could be asking: Why don't leaders do that anymore? Charlie Hill says it's not so much that leaders have changed; it's the way leaders accumulate knowledge that's different.

Mr. HILL: Literature is pre-departmental. It's an art form that comes before intellectual institutions began to carve up the world of the intellect, and put it into categories.

BAUGHMAN: And what does he mean by that? Well, imagine you're in a big, empty room and all the things leaders need to know about - politics, economics - they're all separate - history. They don't really interact with each other -sociology - just kind of off in their own little worlds - religion and psychology.

And these things, Charlie Hill says, are separated by rules of modern productivity, boundaries that say everyone should be an expert in one thing and one thing only.

Mr. HILL: But leaders recognize that the problems they face don't have these boundaries around them. Any problem that comes in front of you is going to have all of these factors overlapping and jumbled together.

(Soundbite of music)

BAUGHMAN: And that's what happened. That's why not very many world leaders read classics anymore. Everything became too separate. And if you're a leader with all those specialized experts at your feet, why bother with classics, trying to fit everything together in your own head?

And Chairman Mao, what was he actually reading? It turns out he had one book among his many favorites, a novel called "The Dream of the Red Chamber." He claimed to have read it five times.

Mr. HILL: It reminds me of the novels of Jane Austen. There were all kinds of stratagems and intrigues and diplomatic goings on that can be very engaging for someone who is trying to carry out these same things on a grand, international scale.

BAUGHMAN: So, there you go, Audie. Something for the tail end of your summer book list.

CORNISH: Appreciate that, Brent. That's our producer Brent Baughman. And Brent, feel free to get back to reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

BAUGHMAN: Oh yeah, I'm hanging on every word.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.