Why I Read, Obama Reads, and You Should, Too

Talking about my liberal arts education in the context Colombia’s career-oriented culture is tense. I am on the defensive. Once people get to know me better and hear about my drives, passions, and the rigor I bring to my life and studies–or once it’s been spilled where I went to college–the tension typically diffuses.

At universities here, students prepare for careers with little space for exploration. The fact alone that students are forced to apply for specific carreras, or careers, when applying for college perfectly illustrates this point. Similarly rigid, Colombian society is stratified according to socioeconomic status via the estrato system–reminiscent of the Indian caste system–in which families, apartment buildings, and neighborhoods are assigned a number 1-6, with 6 being the most affluent; one’s estrato determines prices for utilities, cost of living, and largely defines social circles. Since occupations largely dictate or are reflective of socioeconomic status, it fits that Colombians are always sizing each other up and introductions in any setting inevitably open with the fateful question, “Qué carrera estudiaste?” or “what did you study?”

I have no easy answer. I studied history, literature, art history, Spanish, film, as well as biology, chemistry, and other subjects. My coursework, my degree as listed on my diploma (which has a bit of everything), and my current fellowship (in how it encourages me to openly consider a broad range of career paths) all reveal me to be completely at odds with the dominating carrera-mindset in Colombia.

Last month, I witnessed an Australian friend who has lived in Colombia with her Colombian husband for many years respond to the question, “what was your carrera?” Well into middle-age, she had long ago grown to be disillusioned with the publicity and marketing job she had trained for in college, so she created her own business to follow her passions for the history, science, and culinary experiences of coffee and chocolate. We were all interacting in the context of a chocolatier class, where she was the instructor, yet she still was put in a defensive position as a student in the class conspicuously tried to evaluate her standing.

Without skipping a beat, my friend politely explained that in most countries besides Colombia, you are not only defined by your carrera, but also by your particular interests, values, and how you pursue them in your life. People do ask what you studied in college, she explained, but they also want to hear how your interests have evolved in the years since your late teens or 20s when you first picked your carrera. The Colombians in the class, accustomed to more superficial assessment, were bewildered that they couldn’t categorize her as a publicist who quit her job to pursue her “hobbies.” I wish I could remember her exact phrasing because it was an elegant moment in which she demonstrated how the overly simplistic Colombian systems of thinking facilitate quick-judgement but preclude deeper knowledge about a person and what makes the person interesting. That’s all to say, my immediate context in Colombia is a somewhat hostile environment for individuals exploring multiple interests, particularly if those interests are not associated with a rigorous or prestigious occupation.

But it’s not just in Colombia that I’ve had to defend concentrating my studies in the humanities. And I understand why the study of stories and storytelling is not always valued; there is more mission driven work with potential for tangible results for lawyers, doctors, and engineers, or anyone with a particular professional training really. There’s also no clear professional path for those pursuing humanities, and uncertainty can be intimidating, so the encouragement from family to follow established career pathways is understandable. As much as I’ve found myself drawn to the clear purpose of professional work in such fields, particularly medicine and global health, I also feel a pull to study culture and stories, a pull that I haven’t been able to whole-heartedly resist. Whether it’s immersing myself in film, music, theatre, paintings, or novels, I relish learning about others, and in doing so, about myself, through stories.

While I have been deeply moved by stories I’ve encountered on countless occasions, it can be difficult to articulate the power of stories and explain myself to others. Stories and the impulse to tell stories feel universal and timeless, and sometimes this makes me question the relevance of stories given the rapid pace of our contemporary world and pressing global issues demanding attention and action. But Obama’s discussion with the NYTimes head book critic this week demonstrates the value of slowing down to take in stories and how stories also hold potential for action. Reading can change hearts and minds, creating the attitudes necessary for change on more tangible levels. One quotation from the interview, in particular, resonates with much of my reflecting from the past months: “When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify–as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize–is more important than ever.”

Could Obama’s emphatic endorsement of books and stories bring about a change in cultural attitudes towards storytelling? I don’t think Colombians, even the biggest fans of Obama, will be viewing graduates with literature or history degrees in higher esteem anytime soon. But that’s not my goal.

To limit things a bit, I’ll focus on books as a form of storytelling here: I hope the change starts small, with more individuals prioritizing reading and browsing books (ideally in independent bookstores, used bookstores, or libraries!), and discussing the stories they find engaging with others. In the reflective fervor of New Years resolution setting, I hope more of us dedicate time to slowing down our chaotic lives, peeling ourselves from our constantly-updating newsfeeds, newspapers, and news programs, and regularly pick up a book.

My favorite used bookstore, Libreria Merlin, located in an old mansion in downtown Bogotá. Nearby, many vendors sell used or pirated copies of popular reads at unbeatable prices.

In case you need more urging, read this fantastic piece “The Need to Read,” by Will Schwalbe, published in the Wall Street Journal in November. Or simply read my favorite excerpts: “Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. They demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page…By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings of those to others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you can do alone than can make you feel less alone. It is a solitary activity that connects you to others.”

Feeling hyped to read? I sure hope so! Now you just need a book, and, lucky for you, I’m always spewing with recommendations. In the next week, I’ll post my “Year in Review,” which will have a list of the books I read for pleasure in 2016 (see what I read in 2015 here). And below I’ve written up a list of the authors and books Obama mentioned in his chat with Michiko Kakutani and the authors and books Will Schwalbe mentioned in his WSJ Saturday Essay.

As you can probably tell, reading Kakutani’s write up on the chat and then the full transcript left me feeling personally validated. At times I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities for my life and what comes next, and on a smaller, more immediate scale, sometimes I have trouble prioritizing activities for my fellowship. A few days ago, I saw this year’s programming for the 2017 Hay Festival in Cartagena, a literary festival that features nearly all of my favorite Colombian authors in this year’s edition. I’ve been stuck deciding, going between wanting to attend and trying to save money for a fantasy Europe trip I hope to take after finishing my time in Colombia. With Obama’s words of resounding promotion of stories, attending the festival feels like more a legitimate activity, and I may just have to do it.

Authors, Thinkers, & Books mentioned by Obama

  • Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook 
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
  • Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father
  • Jack Kerouac
  • Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
  • Liu Cixin, Three-Body Problem series
  • Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
  • Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
  • Shakespeare, The Tempest, and other tragedies
  • Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
  • V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River
  • Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Speech, Gettysburg Address, and others
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Mahatma Ghandi
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Winston Churchill
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Junot Díaz
  • Philip Roth
  • Saul Bellow
  • Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
  • Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction
  • James Baldwin
  • Ralph Ellison
  • Langston Hughes
  • Richard Wright
  • W.E.B. Dubois
  • Malcolm X
  • St. Augustine
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Reinhold Niebuhr

Authors, Thinkers, & Books in “The Need to Read”

  • Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
  • Socrates
  • Plato
  • Pliny the Younger
  • E.B. White, Stuart Little
  • Julius Caesar, The Gallic War
  • Homer, The Odyssey
  • Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From the Sea
  • Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
  • Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
  • Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
  • R.J. Palacio, Wonder
  • Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran



One thought on “Why I Read, Obama Reads, and You Should, Too

  1. I enjoyed reading your article. Thanks for sharing your points of view! Nowadays is not easy to be openly curious and think about what really matters. Only children can be hungry of knowledge, but as an adult, their imagination is limited by the pressure of the task they’re supposed to do in the society, wasting the big spectrum of simple pleasures of life. In my opinion, our books, stories and imagination molds our reality, so it’s important to ask ourselves what are we enjoying, reading and watching. Thanks!


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