Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation

Interviews, Reader’s Den

What Are You Reading? Politicians Edition


At the end of June I attended the American Library Association's annual conference in Chicago, IL. Over 20,000 librarians and others in the library world filled the McCormic Center, teaching, learning and networking at over 2,300 events and on the vender floor. In the midst of all of this I managed to conduct two short interviews with people I very much admire: the first female and African-American Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and Civil Rights legend turned Congressman John Lewis who co-authored the award winning graphic novel March.

As a Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden can't exactly answer my normal Librarian of Congress Carla Haydenquestions as they are not allowed to promote specific books. But I had to try:

What are you reading at the moment?

So I have stacks [Puts one hand about a foot above the other] and I group them: The books that are sort of related to work; the books that are fun to read that I can't quite get to; the books that are just sort of interesting... I went to Monticello recently, and I got a book about the chefs for the Whitehouse—the African American chefs—that was just fascinating, and so there's just all this stuff and it depends on what my mood is. I pick one or another up.

What was the one thing you wish they had taught you in library school that you kind of had to learn with your feet on the ground?Badge Ribbons

I had an interesting experience in library school! I was actually working in a public library when I was in school so I had the benefit of going to class and then going to work and sort of blending it, and so I found that... well there's something they can't teach you in library school, and that's how to predict the future [laughs]. You never know where your career is gonna go.

Where do you think libraries are going, speaking of the future?

Oh, well [gestures around] look at this conference! I mean [holding up my badge ribbons and indicating the first few] You're speaking here, you're serving the incarcerated, you... you know I think that the energy and synergy of the next generation librarians and library specialists tells you where it's going.

So we are the future...

Oh you guys are! I mean you're much more tech savvy than we were. Of course we were doing punch-cards.

That's true, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around those... That's pretty amazing!

We're talking 40 years ago. Apple II's. Have you ever seen one of those?

I have actually! And I used to have a Commodore 64C growing up.

Ooooh OK

Not too far from the Apple II's... well comparatively.

Well you are more tech savvy. By the time Apple II's we weren't doing, you know...

It wasn't as complicated...

It wasn't complicated at all! If I was using it! [laughs]

*At that point she saw a friend, and we left it at that.

The next day I was finishing up a panel when my friend from grad-school sent me a text that John Lewis was at the Library of Congress booth on the vender floor. I managed to get there when he was Congressman John Lewiswrapping up an autograph session with artist and co-author Nate Powell.

Powell is a graphic novelist and musician. While the Congressman finished up with the last person in the line I asked:

What are you reading?

Right now I'm reading Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi. I just finished rereading Please Kill Me [by Gillian

Stamped from the beginning cover
Nate Powell's pick

McCain and Legs McNeil] and I just cracked open the biography of Joan Didion, so those are the three that are in circulation right now.

Congressman Lewis had finished up and so I asked him:

What are you reading?

There's a book that just came out about President Kennedy and Martin Luther King JR. It's Kennedy and the King and it outlines the lives of both, how one came from a very wealthy family and the other came from a middle class family. One white, one African American, and their lives came together during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. And they both led, and both inspired. I got to know them both... President Kennedy was so inspiring and uplifting, Martin Luther King JR. the same way, but they gave us hope and they both died too young.

May I ask you what the most influential book for your life'sMartin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story path was?

Yeah, it was a comic book! A comic book that came out in 1958 called Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story. 16 pages, sold for .10 cents. It told the story of a Montgomery bus walk-out. Told the story of Rosa Parks and 50,000 people walking rather than riding segregated buses. It talked about the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. It became like a roadmap... a blueprint on how to protest, how to believe in something and stand up and fight for it and - if necessary - die for it.

It was amazing speaking with them both and the conference wasn't over yet!

Hillary Clinton was the closing speaker two days later.  She spoke about the first time she got a library card, how exciting it was, and how she felt like she was "being handed a passport to the world." While I wasn't able to speak with her directly, she did provide a pretty comprehensive reading list.

Little Women cover

As a child she loved everything from Nancy Drew mysteries to Little Women to James Michener. Following her 2016 Presidential loss she found that reading had a restorative and healing effect. "I finished Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, I devoured mysteries by Louise Penny, Donna Leon, Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd. I reread old favorites like Henri Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal Son, the poetry of Maya Angelou, and Mary Oliver, I was riveted by The Jersey Brothers and a new book of essays called The View From Flyover Country which turned out to be especially relevant in the midst of our current healthcare debate." 

While her next book doesn't have a title yet, she was celebrating the new picture book edition of her 1996 book It Takes a Village

Besides books, Clinton laid out the three reasons librarians and libraries are invaluable in our society. First off that reading changes lives. Aside for opening the Hillary Clinton It Takes A Villageworld to readers she cited the benefits to brain health and education from reading in general and the empathy that reading fiction builds. Second, that libraries "are places for communities to come together." These spaces provide a place for the public to not only learn, but access information, job training and technology that may be out of reach otherwise. "As librarians," she said, "you go above and beyond every day to serve the needs of the people living in your communities."  Finally she cited the need for critical thinkers. Information and media literacy, things that are increasingly needed in the age of alternative facts, are things that librarians have been teaching the public for as long as they've existed. "You are the guardians of the First Amendment and the freedom to read and to speak. I believe libraries and democracy go hand in hand."

Powerful words that we strive to live up to. 


What celebrities or public figures are you curious about?
Whose book list would you like to read?
Let us know in the comments!


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Post new comment