The publication last week of 'A Promised Land', the latest memoir of Barack Obama, caused quite a stir. Whether we're all longing to be reminded of the recent past when things were safer and more predictable, or we're relishing the opportunity to dwell in the company of someone who conveys a calm, reassuring composure, it's encouraging to see that the book has topped the sales charts.
There's a depth and thoughtfulness to Obama which is very attractive in a leader, so it's interesting, I think, to be reminded of how he has said he finds solace, wisdom, insight and compassion through reading novels.
In an interview a few years ago, he said: "the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.”
If you remember, in the summer, crime writer, Val McDermid commented on this too. Governments that seem to have done best in our current crisis, she said, “are led by people who read fiction”, naming Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Jacinda Ahern in New Zealand, Katrin Jakobsdottir in Iceland and Sanna Marin in Finland.
“What fiction gives you is the gift of imagination and the gift of empathy," she said. "You see a life outside your own bubble. If you’re sitting there reading your endless biographies of Churchill or Attlee or whatever, you’re not looking at the world outside your window. You’re not understanding the lives of ordinary people who populate the country you’re supposed to be governing.
“My advice to any politician is: go and read a novel and you’ll understand the world better and you can imagine a changed world better.”
It's good to learn, then, that fiction sales are on the rise. Although the past few years had seen a decline, during the pandemic the sales of novels has grown by 13 per cent. And, apparently, there was a similar upturn in reading novels during the second world war.