Vanity Fair’s puff piece on Beto O’Rourke, published nearly simultaneously with O’Rourke’s announcement that he was running for President of the United States, says more about the author of the piece than it does about O’Rourke. My interest in the piece was limited to its description of O’Rourke’s library, which author Joe Hagan described as follows:
“Behind the door, in the O’Rourke living room, a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf contains a section for rock memoirs (Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, a favorite) and a stack of LPs (the Clash, Nina Simone) but also a sizable collection of presidential biographies, including Robert Caro’s work on Lyndon B. Johnson. Arranged in historical order, the biographies suggest there’s been some reflection on the gravity of the presidency. But there’s also some political poetry to it, a sense that O’Rourke might be destined for this shelf. He has an aura.”
Obviously Hagan is not a real book lover. If he were, he would have given us a much more detailed description of O’Rourke’s library. The most impressive book mentioned is “Robert Caro’s work on Lyndon B. Johnson.” Actually, the biography is a series of books—four to date and still not complete. Caro’s biography of Johnson is one of the best biographies I have ever read. One volume, Master of the Senate, won a Pulitzer.
O’Rourke might have an aura, but his library doesn’t, not as presented by Hagan anyway. He only gives us one other title, Bob Dylan’s Chronicle, another unfinished book, and doesn’t make it clear if the book is his favorite or O’Rourke’s. Then he suggests that the presidential biographies “arranged in historical order…suggest there’s been some reflection on the gravity of the presidency.” Really? Mightn’t he just have a need for order.
But Hagan then adds “there’s also some political poetry to” the arrangement “a sense that O’Rourke might be destined for this shelf.” It’s doubtful that anyone has ever taken such a cursory look at a person’s library and concluded its owner had presidential gravitas.
According to Hagan, O’Rourke’s former girlfriends described O’Rourke as bookish even when he was young. “He usually carried a novel in his pocket, whether Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or The Sun Also Rises.” We are not told whether O’Rourke carried the books to read or to simply impress his former girlfriends.
I came away from reading the article thinking that Hagan’s description of O’Rourke was somewhat reminiscent of Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, who was also bookish. Says Hagan of O’Rourke, “Maggie Asfahani, an El Paso native who dated O’Rourke while he was at prep school and college, said he was somewhat difficult to know. “That’s kind of the mystique of Beto, is that he seems to be accessible,” she says, “but there’s just this layer of protection. I don’t think it’s because he’s hiding anything. I think it’s because he’s keeping a part of it to himself.”
Photographer Annie Leibovitz’s camera picked up a few more titles from O’Rourke’s library. On his coffee table is a copy of I, Juan de Pareja, a Newbery Awared winning 1965 juvenile book by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño about a slave of the artist Velasquez. O’Rourke’s copy is in Spanish. The book like many books from that era has come under attack for not have 21st century racial views. Also on the table is a copy of Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen, published in 2003, which in twenty years will also probably be attacked for not having correct views on race.
And that’s it. LBJ, Velazquez and his slave, Magellan and Bob Dylan. What’s one to conclude from this description of O’Rourke’s library? Absolutely nothing, other than O’Rourke has a few books in one bookcase and two on a table. Hardly the library of a book collector, intellectual or avid reader. Hagan doesn’t tell us a thing about O’Rourke’s reading habits or whether he reads fiction as well as non-fiction. Or whether he reads at all.
But then, would one expect more from a magazine named Vanity Fair?