The Financial Express

Politicians and statesmen . . . and their reading habits

| Updated: January 01, 2021 20:19:17

Politicians and statesmen . . . and their reading habits

Reading the memoirs of Andrei Gromyko does something cheering to the soul. In the first place, it takes one back to the rather energising days that symbolised the Soviet Union before its collapse in the Gorbachev era. In the second, it reinforces the idea of how statesmen, especially communists, happened to be voracious readers, and right from their young days. Gromyko, a diplomat who served for decades as his country's foreign minister, is quite frank about the way his mother inspired him into reading books. The rich results of his wide reading are evident in this work, the English translation of it giving it the title 'Memories'. His sweeping view of the history of his times is a boon for anyone curious about the ramifications of the Second World War and the Cold War that was soon to come in its wake.

Reading habits in statesmen in our times have consistently been reflected in the many ways in which they have conducted themselves in carrying out their public responsibilities. When Charles de Gaulle was once asked about the biggest influence on his life and career, he wasted no time in coming up with a telling response. 'Do not ask a lion how many lambs it has eaten', he said. 'I have been reading books all my life.' The statement was blunt, but it made its mark. We now know of the sheer intellectual prowess which guided de Gaulle in his administration of France even as he dealt with the world, on his terms.

Joseph Stalin, we understand through studies of the man, read profusely and could copiously quote Shakespeare and Goethe, among so many other writers, at dinner with his party colleagues. There was cruelty in him, to be sure, as evident from the innumerable purges of his real and imagined enemies. But that did not detract him from his fascination for books. Ironically, it was some powerful writers and poets he went after, individuals like Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. But that did not interfere with his reading of history and the classics. Adolf Hitler was no statesman, of course. But the mass murderer in him too spent a considerable time reading, a truth borne out by the huge personal library he built at home.

Politicians are often ruthless, depending on where they happen to be at given points of history. Mao Zedong, without whom the history of China would be different from what we know of it today, wrote poetry of a defining sort. 'Beauty lies at the top of the mountain', he declaimed. His study was piled chaotically with books, all of which he had read and the results of which reading came through in his interaction with foreign leaders. Richard Nixon, himself an avid reader and writer of informed articles and books, especially on foreign policy, was suitably impressed when he met the Chairman in February 1972 in Beijing. And there was too Zhou En-lai, the urbane scholar whose association with reading constantly manifested itself in his interaction with visitors humble and great, local and foreign.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was an ardent reader, as his library at his Dhanmondi home has shown. He admired Bertand Russell and George Bernard Shaw. On his last night alive, he was reportedly reading the latter's 'Man and Superman'. His readings of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were detailed. He was also conversant with Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment.' In an earlier time, Jawaharlal Nehru epitomised political leadership which rested on scholarship. His letters to his daughter, coupled with his authorship of 'The Discovery of India', are instances of the wide reading which went into the development of his personality as a political figure. Gandhi remains another example of a politician whose individuality was enriched by a lifelong habit of reading and, yes, writing.

In the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a fast reader, rushing through a thousand words a minute. Books were among his fascination, but he was to be clearly upstaged here by two future presidents. Bill Clinton has had the reputation of reading five books at a time. Barack Obama's brilliance, and expansive reading habits, have shone through the books he has written (Audacity of Hope, Dreams From My Father and A Promised Land). In the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln's reading clearly shaped him for the leadership he was to provide his country during the Civil War. He simply stretched out on the floor, leaning against an upturned chair (which irritated his wife to no end) and read on.

Tajuddin Ahmad was a profound reader, proof of which was to be found in his political and intellectual discourse throughout his career. His diaries in his youthful days between the late 1940s and early 1950s are even today pointers to the remarkable Bengali nationalist he was to become. Francois Mitterrand, a voracious reader, would slip away from the Elysee in his presidential days and go off to the many bookshops in Paris looking for copies of rare books to add to his collection. He enjoyed power; and he enjoyed reading more. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for all his arrogance and insensitivity to people around him, was a good reader. His library at his Clifton home in Karachi is rich, with a good number of works on Napoleon Bonaparte, a man he admired hugely. Harold Wilson and Michael Foot in Britain were fond of books, losing themselves in reading all their lives.

Politicians generally remain busy dealing with statecraft. But administering nations or dealing with people is infinitely lifted to a higher plane when politicians read, when they make it a habit to read. Intense, focused reading transforms politicians into statesmen, provided they can prevent hubris from infecting the statesmanship with its poison.

Reading teaches humility. Think here of India's poet-politician Atal Behari Vajpayee.

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