I was recently asked by a community group that will be interviewing Billings City Council candidates if I had any questions for the candidates.
My suggestion wasn’t really a question, it was this: “Name your three favorite books.”
Back when I was covering the City Council for the Gazette, I couldn’t wait to ask candidates about their favorite books. Their responses, I always figured, told voters at least as much about them as their answers to questions about policy and governance.
Call me a snob, but I had trouble feeling any enthusiasm for candidates whose favorite books were trendy volumes of self-help or pop psychology, the latest book of advice from some business mogul or an inspirational tome by a television preacher.
Conversely, I had to feel some respect for a candidate who mentioned a book like “Moby Dick,” though such mentions were rare.
Politicians often mention the Bible, and in some cases you can almost believe they might have read some of it. At least a couple of times over the years, City Council candidates, asked to list three books, listed only the Bible. I’m guessing it was the only book whose title they could remember.
After I responded to the group looking for questions to ask the candidates, it occurred to me that it would only be fair to list my own three favorite books. I have already written about my three favorite Montana books, in an essay I published on Last Best News about eight months ago.
They were “The Big Sky,” by A.B. Guthrie, “Plenty-coups, Chief of the Crows,” by Frank Linderman, and “We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher,” by E.O. “Teddy Blue” Abbott.
I suppose that would look pretty good if I were running for office in Montana, but the list in question is supposed to be my three favorite books, not my three favorite Montana books.
So let me tell you about them … in a moment or two. First I should tell you about what Bill Cochran, director of what is now the Billings Public Library, did some years ago. He had accepted a job in the Midwest, and before leaving he asked dozens of friends and acquaintances in Billings to list their favorite books—their top five or 10, I forget which.
It seemed like a fitting move for a librarian who was about to move on, but as it happened, he decided at the last minute not to leave, and he is still the library director. And he presumably still has those lists of favorite books.
On the list I filled out for Bill, I believe my top three books were “The Magic Mountain,” by Thomas Mann, “The Complete Essays of Montaigne” and “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” by James Boswell.
Those would still be my top three. Those are the books that had and continue to have the greatest influence on me, and all are books that I could take down right now, open at random and read with great pleasure. And if I were running for political office, they would not do me any good.
Conservatives would point out that they were written, respectively, by a German, a Frenchman and an Englishman. What kind of American does that make me? The progressive would look at my list and notice that all three books were written by dead, white males.
Oh, well. I’m almost positive I will never run for office, and if I did, opposition researchers could probably find a lot juicier material against me than a list of books. Besides, I can change my mind if I do run for office, and decide that, in fact, the Bible is my favorite book. I believe this is what Donald Trump did.
And now, in the spirit of Bill Cochran, let me ask readers of this column to list their three favorite books. I know some of the people who regularly comment here, but lists like this are fascinating even if you don’t know the list-makers.
And if the Bible really is on your list, don’t let my comments above dissuade you from listing it. There won’t be a quiz.