It was recently revealed which books president Obama intended to read while vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard (and for the record, I’m not going to join in the chorus of pundits that pounced on him for taking a break in these troubled times – first, because the Presidency is indeed a tough job and Calvin Coolidge also took regular and fairly lengthy breaks, and second, because to me, this particular president is less harmful when vacationing than when he’s on the job). As the article mentions, other recent presidents (and current candidates) have similarlyhad their reading matter publicized, although at least to me it is unclear whether these lists truly represent what the president reads and wants to read, or whether they are merely for show. In any event, they represent another set of tea leaves to read in order to get a glimpse into the man’s interests and passions.
Little is known (unless some one of my vastly more knowledgeable readers corrects me) about Calvin Coolidge’s book list while in the White House. We do know that he was more of a man of letters than most recent presidents have been, in the sense of having been schooled in the classic canon of Western literature and philosophy. Having begun learning Latin and Greek while at Black River Academy, he recalls in autobiography that he derived much joy from the poetry of Homer, and the orations of Demosthenes and Cicero. Later, at Amherst College, he read the speeches of Lord Erskine, of Webster, and Choate, the essays of Macaulay, and the writings of Carlyle and John Fiske, and of course much Milton and Shakespeare while not neglecting the more contemporary poems of Kipling, Field, Whittier and Riley. It also is important to note that the reading of “novels” was frowned upon by men of serious mind well into the 20th century – novels were something that women purchased and read. It is therefore safe to assume that he did not indulge in much “frivolous” reading – he simply had neither the time nor the inclination for popular literature such as the works of John O’Hara, Pearl S. Buck, Edna Ferber, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, although we may be sure that his wife was well acquainted with the best sellers of the day.
Coolidge over the years did acquire a sizable personal library. While still in the White House, he had David C. Mearns, chief of the Library of Congress’ manuscript divison, catalogue his books. When the writer and Coolidge friend Bruce Barton visited the by then retired Coolidge at his new home, The Beeches, in Northampton in 1931, he wrote:
After supper Mr. Coolidge and I went to the library and talked of all sorts of things. Only part of his books are there, he explained. He has more than four thousand, and the shelves will hold only fifteen hundred. “After trying to divide four into one and a half, I gave it up, and stored the others. Some day I’ll have to build on an extension.”
Calvin Coolidge was a classically educated and well-read man, who throughout his career returned to the great works of literature for inspiration. We may never know whether he sometimes sneaked in a cheap paperback crime novel, but I highly doubt it.