Every year, as the days grow longer and the sunsets smoggier, I begin to daydream. But it’s not grilled food and flip-flops that take residence in my sun-soaked head — it’s books: time-worn paperbacks and crisp hardcovers; bestsellers and meaty classics; memoirs, short fiction and dog-eared poetry anthologies. I don’t remember when or how, but somewhere along the way summer became synonymous with reading. And not just for me. Yet for all our fantasies of languid hours beneath the shade of a tree, a 6-pound tome in tow or a couple hundred pages of pulp in hand, time and economics usually dictate something less romantic for everyone but the privileged and the academic.

This year, however, the realities of recession, foreclosure and unemployment may actually support our literary pursuits. Time spent waiting in government offices or using public transportation systems leaves us with little else to do but read. I recently found myself in such unpleasant circumstances, dreading what would undoubtedly be excruciating hours away from all personal electronic devices (my iPod was dead) until I remembered that somewhere in the file cabinet I had once called “my purse” was an unread book.  

Despite nasty rumors to the contrary, books — or “portable worlds,” as I’ve heard them referred to — are not (yet) obsolete. And when you’re crammed into a warm room where the anxiety level would be audible if the volume on the television (which is almost always showing Toy Story) wasn’t so high and no one is pacified by the monotone décor, a book at the bottom of your bag is like manna from heaven. With some clever use of visualization, you’re in the park. The children you hear are playing, not bickering, and all that periwinkle blue is the sky, not the furniture. Think of it as creative loafing, or as I’ve come to accept it, post-Bush leisure time. You may come to discover that imagination, comfortable shoes and a library card can get you through almost anything.

A list of suggested books is not a prerequisite for the summer reading journey, but some people find it useful. Considering that one of the most important and historic presidential elections in recent decades is only a few months away, it seems like a good time to catch up on relevant reading.
While I have no doubts about who has my vote, I confess my decision is not the result of a careful process, but rather an emotional response to the sense of desperation and cynicism the current administration’s policies have engendered in me. A desire to restore my confidence in the principles I think this country was founded on has led me to a handful of books, old and new, that have not so much strengthened my intellectual grasp of the foundations of American government but awakened me to the spirit behind them.  Here is what I’m reading at the bus stop, in the County Human Services Agency office and between jobs:

The Federalist Papers

by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay  

(Bantam Classic Paperback Edition including the U.S Constitution)

This series of essays was originally published in 1787-1788 in a New York newspaper to sway public opinion in favor of a federal government versus individual state sovereignty. This is very heady stuff for an ex-stoner whose formal education climaxed with a certificate of completion from Yamano’s School of Beauty in Los Angeles. With a dictionary in hand and some determination, however, reading and even understanding this complex discourse on the principles of constitutional law is possible. Within these writings, there is also a perceived absence of the hidden agenda that accompanies the campaigns of modern career politicians. The contrast between Republican thought then and now is also evident throughout. “Republicans” of early American history were different animals altogether from the ones who have come to define the party today. But, as I traverse the dense verbiage of The Federalist Papers, what strikes me most is the passion with which these men approached public service and the resulting quality and importance of their contributions. A measuring stick for anyone entering today’s political arena.

Profiles in Courage

by John F. Kennedy

(HarperCollins, 1955, 1964, 2003)

2John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of eight men who displayed unparalleled character while serving in the U.S. Senate by refusing to exchange their principles for popularity. While the stories are encouraging, arguably the best part of the book is the foreword, which serves as a sort of apology for the pitfalls of public service. Kennedy repeatedly reminds us of the complexities of policymaking, especially vis-à-vis a less-than-forgiving constituency. He blames the perception of a decline in the efficacy of the American political process on the public’s decreased appreciation for the art of politics. Kennedy also reveals the temptation to tell constituents to “go to hell,” after being confronted with untold numbers of “impossible requests, hopelessly inconsistent demands and endlessly unsatisfied grievances.”  It’s a refreshing viewpoint; politicians are human.

Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals

by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw

(Zondervan, 2008)

2It’s no secret the evangelical vote will carry quite a bit of weight in the upcoming presidential election. But it is not widely known that an entirely different type of evangelical Christian is emerging and gaining influence, especially among young Christian voters. This book is aimed at Christians who seem to have forgotten that the biggest proponent for church/state separation was Jesus. Secularists who are open-minded enough to explore this book will likely find more to agree with than not. The authors use a compelling amalgam of scripture, dialogue and graphic art to inspire a fresh look at Christianity, especially as it relates to empire. The authors, whose vehicles run on used vegetable oil, speak a bipartisan — if slightly hippie-ish — message with suggestions for an alternative economy, handmade goods, interdependence, revolutionary patience and an Amish (tongue-in-cheek) Homeland Security. Jesus for President is the perfect antidote to the poisonous prose Christians like Anne Coulter have been spitting out for too many years.

Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie/Gonzo Papers Vol. 4

by Hunter S. Thompson

(Random House, 1994)

2Most people would say Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is the quintessential gonzo politics primer, and it is. But given its relevance to the current political landscape, Better Than Sex provides a little backstory and a lot of comic relief for those of us who have grown weary of the repetitive punditry that seems to dominate political conversation. Thompson covered politics like a high-stakes gambler at the Kentucky Derby — he wasn’t just on the story, he was in it. Thompson even ran a serious campaign for Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo., on the “Freak Party” ticket. He likens the insidiousness of politics to the Guinea Worm. “It sneaks into your body and grows like a cyst from within.” Perhaps the best part of the book, both for its hilarity and keen insight, is when Thompson and the editors of Rolling Stone magazine (Jan Wenner and P.J. O’Rourke) sit down with presidential nominee Bill Clinton, his wife, Hillary, and adviser James Carville (Thompson’s evil twin) for lunch at a diner in the South. Thompson, who admitted the main reason he was voting for Clinton was George Bush, described the governor as someone who, “ate a lot of French fries, laughed at the wrong times and often manifested clinical symptoms of schizophrenia.” One wonders what Thompson would make of Obama.