10/10/2011 02:09 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2011

Finding the Souls of Politicians Through the Books They Read

When asked by Steve Berntson, a farmer from Paulina, Iowa, to discuss books that had shaped his life, Rick Perry turned the question back to the economy and failed to name even a single book that influenced him, or cheered him, or inspired him. (New York Times, "After Rocky Start, More Study, and Sleep, for Perry", October 10, 2011). As an avid book reader who has found wisdom and comfort and joy in books, I suspect the question was asked for the same reason that it was dodged: because the books we cherish -- the books that influence us and move us and which we lend out to others and reread ourselves again and again -- reveal an important aspect of who we are. As I wrote in my book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, "We are what we love to read, and when we admit to loving a book, we admit that the book represents some aspect of ourselves truly, whether it is that we are suckers for romance or pining for adventure or secretly fascinated by crime."

What we love to read can reveal that we have a propensity for mercy (A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines), an understanding of war (Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry), a generosity of spirit (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens), an intolerance of prejudice (The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty), a dedication to service (Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer); that we distrust dogma (A Gift Upon the Shore by W.K. Wren), strive against injustice (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee), and realize that our actions can have unredeemable consequences (Indignation by Philip Roth).

The books we love reveal how much we value connection (Howards End by E.M. Forster), cross-cultural understanding (Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks), cross-generational exchange (The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray by Walter Mosley), and being alive (Man in the Dark by Paul Auster).

The question of whether a politician reads at all is a good one, and should be asked and answered more often. But the question of which books a politician has loved throughout his or her lifetime must be asked and answered. Because in such an answer we will find an inkling of the soul of the politician, and everyone knows that can be very hard to find.