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February 27th, 2011
09:00 AM ET

Letters to the President: #769 'Call me Ishmael'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: The president has written some books. I’ve read some. So I guess we’re even.

Dear Mr. President,

I’ve been meaning to tell you for some time that my mother has given up on Moby Dick.
“Oh, I’ve tried and tried to get through that stupid book,” she told me on the phone, “but I just can’t. So I’m not trying anymore.”

This letter, btw, has nothing to do with being president; it’s just one of those where I keep you apprised on some of the events in my life. Hey, your life is in the papers every day; how the heck else are you going to know about me if I don’t tell you here?

Anyway, she has been reading a tremendous amount in the past few years, especially since my dad passed away. Like a lot of older folks, she doesn’t always sleep well, so on any given day when I call to say hello she may have been up all night pushing through some novel or historic tale or whatever. Just not Moby Dick anymore.

I understand why she surrendered. Unlike Ahab, she is not obsessed with the white whale, and she is the first to say, “Hey, I’m getting older. I don’t have time to read every book, so why would I waste anymore time on one I don’t like?”

Hearing her say that made plenty of sense to me, but I remember a time when it would not have. From my earliest days, I have loved reading and I have often sat up half the night turning pages. In my freshman year of high school, I thought briefly that I would read every book in our school library. When some quick math convinced me it was impossible, I set out instead to read all the biographies. It was wonderful. Albert Schweitzer, Irving Berlin, Pearl Bailey, Nicola Tesla, Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis Jr., W.C. Fields; every time I finished one, I grabbed the next. It was the education of a lifetime fed by the stories of many lifetimes and it was wonderful.

And yet some books have been tough. The Iliad. Don Quixote. (Oddly enough, I found War and Peace a breeze! Go figure. I like the Russian writers.)

But Moby Dick was a challenge to me, just as it was for my mom. I started it in 7th grade, and it proved to be one of the very few books that I had to abandon before finishing. The language, the characters, the setting, the sub plots, the symbolism and themes were all pretty hard to fit into a Little-League-size brain, so I put the leviathan away. But it troubled me. For years I winced a little whenever I saw a copy, and then one day, well into my adulthood I picked it up again, and read from the first word to the last. And I loved it.

So maybe, despite her vow to the contrary, my mother will come back to it as well. As Ahab learned, fixations are strange things. Easy to pick up. Hard to put down.

Now, if only I can reopen The Odyssey.

Hope all is well. Going for a 20 mile training run today. Call if you want to come along. Or ride a bicycle alongside. Ha!

Regards,
Tom

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

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