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In The Arena

Dec 8, 2020

As 2020 comes to a close, we take a moment to reflect on the numerous books that government officials from across the nation have recommended over the past several years.

In the Arena’s podcast interviews have included many good book recommendations, often more than one, from government officials all over the country. The officials have suggested books for all kinds of reasons; some have enchanted them as a child, others have inspired them to pursue their current career of public service. Sometimes all the officials can manage is to list the three most recent books they have enjoyed because, as Blair Milo, Indiana’s secretary for Career Connections and Talent, explained, “I could no sooner pick a favorite star in the heavens,” than pick a single best book to read.

Books often become favorites if they provide some sense of nostalgia or wonder. They can be an escape into an alternate reality or a world that satiates the present moment’s wanderlust. During the coronavirus pandemic, this can also act as a form of stress relief, an escape from the confines of the shelter-in-place orders. Los Angeles, Calif., Mayor Eric Garcetti turns to Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, a book of short stories “and many of them are these beautiful fantastical metaphors for the universe.” But he also turns to books for hope, which can act as an escape from the fear and uncertainty of this global pandemic. He discusses how Marge Pearcy’s book of poetry, Stone, Paper, Knife, which gets its title from a poem that is “all about how, in the midst of struggle, do we still stay idealistic and hang on to hope, and hope rests in each one of us.”

For others, a favorite book can be a connection to a cherished moment in time. For Kristen Cox, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, it also happens to be a moment of triumph. “Because I had some vision growing up, they didn’t teach me braille. But then as I went more and more blind, I had no way to read,” Cox explains. After having her first son, she taught herself to read braille, learning a letter a day, so that she could read to her son. Eventually, she was proficient enough to read her first book in braille: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. “I love The Hobbit anyway, but to read that in braille was a huge accomplishment for me.”

Other times, a favorite book can create a cherished moment and connection between two people despite physical separation. For In the Arena host, Cathilea Robinett, and senior advisor to the California Office of Emergency Services, Karen Baker, this unity was fostered over a mutual favorite children’s book: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. “I just don’t know what secret garden is around the corner for me,” Baker explains. “The good is about to happen.”

Books can offer us many things during these unprecedented times, whether that is escaping to a different land or building connection between two people and the public officials who have spoken with us “In the Arena” have read it all.

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