Click through to see what Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans on reading this summer. Hint: There’s a lot of history and no beach reads.
In his literary life he’s a networker, sharing books with Chicago Ald. Edward Burke and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. He’s a campaigner, offering up book recommendations to strangers on the "L."
He’s ambitious, plowing through thick works of history and biography, even as he navigates a stormy second term as leader of the nation’s third-largest city.
And of course this being Mayor Rahm Emanuel, known to friends and foes alike as prickly and relentless, he is intense. When it was suggested that his list of recent and upcoming summer picks (think, "The Great War and Modern Memory," "The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606") is not the average person’s idea of a little light beach reading, the mayor responded with a wry chuckle.
"You noticed, huh?"
Emanuel talked about his reading habits by phone during a recent ride to Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Do you ever go in for a light read? A thriller, a mystery, maybe a celebrity memoir?
A: The short answer is no. And the reason is, I like what I read, I find it intellectually engaging and I don’t really have that much time, so I gotta make every bit count. I read magazines and stuff like that, but if I’m going to read a book, I want to come out smarter. It’s not to escape, it’s to learn.
Q: That leads to my next question. This is the one where the reporter tries to make you do the work for her.
A: (Laughs.) At least you’re honest — unlike your colleagues.
Q: How would you describe yourself as a reader?
A: One way of describing it is looking at what you read, from biographies to history to whatever. I am reading, for the record, "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck right now. Never read it. My older brother (Ezekiel) just reread it and he said it’s fabulous, so I’m reading that piece of great literature.
I would just say, you’ve got to know what I’m interested in. On the other hand, you know, I go in bouts. What I mean by that is, I’ve had the "The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace" for, like, three months. But when I started, I couldn’t put it down. I read that thing in, like, 10 days. But "The Great War and Modern Memory" took me like a month and a half, even though I think it’s a very good book. So if I’m traveling I read more, because I like to read on the plane. If I get up to our house in Michigan to get away, I can read more. But also I like to read some of the history stuff. Ed Burke and I share books; Mike Madigan and I share books. I like to read stuff that other people are reading, so I have people to talk to about (it). And for the record, I’ve now assigned the "Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace" to my wife and my two daughters.
Q: You have that power? You can assign reading to family members?
A: That’s fair: Assign’s a little strong. I recommended it strongly, and (wife) Amy has started it and (daughter) Leah is gonna read it on her summer travels, because she’s going to be away at dance school and stuff like that. (Daughter) Ilana — she’s going to college, and they gave her a book to read, so she’s going to read it after that.
Q: How did "The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace" get on your radar?
A: I have to give credit: Ed Burke recommended it.
Q: Why did it appeal to you?
A: It’s about a kid growing up in Newark, inner city, and it’s about the struggles, the sacrifices his family makes, mainly his mother, to get him a good education. He goes on to Yale. On the other hand, it’s also a story about the affinity of a young man and his father, and what happens when that cord breaks or is fractured. And, on another level, it’s a story about the inner city and its centripetal force on a young man’s life. So it also deals with things that I’m interested in: the hopes of a parent, the obstacles and challenges of a child.
Q: What’s it like to read it?
A: On one level, you don’t want to pick it up, because you know where this is going. On another level, once you pick it up, you can’t put it down. It’s like watching a slow-motion accident where you’re, like, begging him at every level, don’t do this — don’t! I also don’t think it’s an accident that it’s written by his roommate, who’s a writer, who struggles himself, as a writer; he never can find a story. And he finally found a story, and unfortunately it took the tragedy of his roommate from college for him to write (a book).
Q: There’s a lot of history on your list. Are you reading for practical political ideas, for strategy?
A: No, I like history. I like American history. My son has read all of the Robert Caro series on Lyndon Johnson. He’s read "Paris 1919" (by Margaret MacMillan) — these are things I’m recommending to him. He’s just devouring, you know, "Team of Rivals" (by Doris Kearns Goodwin). He’s now reading a Woodrow Wilson book.
Q: How old is your son, Zach?
A: He’s a rising junior (in college). He’s reading stuff that I read 30 years out of college … so we share books. He and I went to dinner Saturday night, and we talked about books. And my Father’s Day gift was a book. So it’s a big part of my life, and I love to read. And the irony is, growing up, I hated it.
A: Hated it is a little strong. I was not as a good a reader as my older brother. Now the same thing is true about my son. I would not call him, growing up, a voracious reader. Now the kid just not only does all his schoolwork, he also does extracurricular (reading). I mean, it’s not easy to read every Robert Caro piece on Lyndon Johnson. He’s read all four of them.
Q: How many books do you read at a time?
A: I read one book and finish it. I don’t have three books going and then (pick up) whatever’s on the nightstand. No. One book. That’s all. Get it done.
A: I think if you’re picking the title and it’s recommended and you want to be part of a conversation, whether it’s my wife and I or my son and I or my daughters or my brother and I, you can’t have read a third of it and be part of that conversation. And the other thing is, you owe it to the author, (whether) you agree or disagree, to finish it.
Q: So you’re a monogamous reader?
A: I won’t disagree with the description but I wouldn’t have used those words.
Q: Do you read about modern politics?
A: Sure. I should warn you, I’ve never, ever read about the Clinton years or the Obama years.
Q: How could you resist?
A: Very easily. I lived through them and I just don’t want to read about them.
Q: Do you read conservative books?
Q: There’s this whole genre by people like Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter. Have you read any of those?
A: No! They’re on TV. No. I have no interest.
Q: You’re not curious?
A: Not at all.
Q: Why not?
A: First of all, I don’t find them intellectually rigorous. I don’t find them intellectually rigorous on TV, so I just don’t believe they would be intellectually rigorous (in print). (I’m) not insulting (them) — they’re not going to read my book. That doesn’t mean I won’t read conservative writers. Somebody could argue "Hillbilly Elegy" (by J.D. Vance, a book that Emanuel said he loved) was written by a conservative, but today what defines conservative is gettin’ pretty whacked-out. I won’t even describe it as conservative — it’s pretty reactionary.
I’m pullin’ up to the airport so I gotta shut you down. Do you have more?
Q: One more: People are going to interpret your reading list, so I want to give you equal time. What would you say your reading list says about you?
A: Personally, I don’t pick books for how people think about me. I read books so I can learn, and if people have recommendations — send them in. I’m always interested and open.
Summer is synonymous with escape, and good books can both supplement a vacation and offer an alternate getaway when you can’t get away. Following are some of the season’s most promising literary diversions.
— Laura Pearson, Chicago Tribune
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