From Family of Secrets to Family of Readers: Jenna Bush’s intoxicatingly good book club
No one ever goes away.
You are browsing the stacks at an independent bookstore. You are checking out the hottest new releases to see what our best scribes have to say about our worst political, environmental, cultural, and moral crises. You notice that some of the titles either bear a sticker, or a sticker-like circle drawn on the cover, that suggests you “Read with Jenna” (#ReadwithJenna). Who is this Jenna? Naturally, you google it. She is Jenna Bush, daughter of George W. Bush and granddaughter of George H.W. Bush.
If you have a certain set of expectations about books and bookstores, this revelation stuns you. You immediately feel out of your depth. So, like a good reader (#ReadwithJenna), you read on, learning that her massive book club is an essential part of her persona as co-host of Hoda and Jenna on hour four of the Today show, an engagement of which you were previously unaware. And which seems like an even bigger deal than the book club, now that you really think about it. It absolves you, a little bit. The whole culture has gone mad, it would seem, not just publishing. That’s, at least, something. You return to the titles arrayed in front of you, which are not the schlock you expected, but books you’ve heard great things about. You grab one of her picks—maybe Kevin Wilson’s Nothing To See Here (a fun romp about fire-children) or Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (a heartbreaking tale of addiction). You support your local indie (#shoplocal) and purchase the book. You love it.
No one ever goes away. Money, power, and status stick to you, and more than other political families the Bushes have the tenacity to stay on top of the game. George H.W. Bush went from Connecticut to Texas to become an oilman. His son George W. Bush has gone from a blue-blooded Yalie to red-blooded rancher and now seems to be back to his roots. His nephew, George P. Bush—son of low-energy Jeb—recently renounced the family name1 in an ill-fated quest for a Trump campaign endorsement. Jenna and her sister2 have gone in the opposite direction, boomeranging back towards liberal society, in a bid for rehabilitation and relevancy.
Jenna is genuine, smart, enthusiastic; she’s good at her job. And the job is good for her, beyond the obvious benefits of influence and power. For Jenna, and those who #ReadwithJenna, literature is not a doorway to doubt or decadence, a castle in the sky or a secret language, but a space for forgiveness and rehabilitation—and this is a power that Jenna depends upon. In an instagram live interview with author Rumaan Alam3 she wistfully states, “too bad Read with Jenna cannot get into politics.” The Read with Jenna political party would, of course, share most of its base with the Democratic party, and that is the point. The goal, the only real goal, is a pedigree so refined, a name so big, that it means you never dissolve into irrelevance—that you always remain an active gatekeeper of some part of American social existence.
Read with Jenna has established trust with the literary community. Look through the Read with Jenna picks and you see books from publishers with much smaller marketing departments than the big guns owned by multinational corporations. It is clear that the Read with Jenna team just doesn’t wait for marketing departments and publicists to come to them. They go out and find titles that fall slightly under the radar: Mateo Askaripour’s Black Buck from the smaller Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Lily King’s Writers and Lovers from the independent Grove Press, and Margret Renkl’s Late Migrations from non-profit publisher Milkweed Editions. Her audience trusts her and she trusts her audience to read books that might fall out of their comfort zone. When I spoke to Joanna Demkiewicz, the marketing director at Milkweed, she told me, “Even though nothing in publishing is organic, I respect their selection and taste. If you look at the list of Jenna’s books—she has chosen these books because she knows that her audience trusts her. That there is a way to talk about these books with the people who watch the Today show, and that she can connect in a way to get people interested in literature that they might not otherwise pick up.”
I cannot disagree. Thanks to Jenna, I read Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, which contains one of the more nuanced portrayals of the seductiveness of nationalism that I have encountered. As a reader, it is hard when your snobbishness has been defeated by someone’s good taste. Maybe, you think, Jenna is even critiquing the nationalism practiced by her father... You watch the segment with Majumdar, and the us vs. them dichotomy perfected by George W. never comes up. Jenna states that she was thinking about our current moment when she read the book. You know you shouldn’t think it, but you do: the Bushes are better than the psychos we have to deal with today.
Maybe it’s not a con. Book clubs are everywhere and everyone has one. They remind us that books, as with so much else, are dominated by normies and not those of us who salivate whenever there’s an NYRB sale. Plus, they are one of the main drivers of book sales, and so at least when the Today show got in on the action they broke with the stereotype. Read with Jenna has much better taste than Reese Witherspoon’s book club. It takes more risks than Oprah’s club, which reinstated itself for Michelle Obama’s Becoming and then lost its luster when it picked Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt. On Read With Jenna’s instagram page, you will find Ann Patchett stating that we should all be more like Jenna Bush. Scroll further on the club’s instagram and watch bookstores from across the country being featured and recommending books while showing off their stores. Everything that independent bookstores could ask for, Jenna does. Follow the links on the todayshow.com/read-with-jenna and you will be directed to Bookshop instead of Amazon. The chance for a Jonathan Franzen–Oprah moment4 feels unlikely under these circumstances.
It is easier to forgive and forget if someone is good at what they do. Acceptance of someone’s public persona becomes palatable if they curate a selection that is worth your time. In fiction the sins of the parent may be cast against the child; in real life it would be facile to criticize Jenna for simply being a Bush. But we cannot ignore the Bush name, because Jenna does not run away from her inheritance. As she pointed out in the interview with Alam,5 she loves books about complicated families. When she is not promoting her newest pick, she is interviewing her dad, or or one of her grandad’s aides, about politics; and here she is jumping out of a plane in honor of H.W. All of this goes down easier when you recall your book club’s great discussion about her latest pick. Suddenly she is neither honoring one of the key architects of the Iran-Contra scandal, nor the man behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but two genial Americans.
A theme I disliked in all my least favorite Read with Jenna picks was the unlikely possession of preternatural abilities by what are supposed to be everyday people. The characters might come from hardscrabble backgrounds, yet thanks to their brains and brawn they are able to negotiate with grace the more difficult aspects of life. These are odes to meritocracy, ironically presented by Jenna, who only gets to showcase her good taste because of her name. One friend told me, “Considering her name, she has done a lot of good,” as if the name “Bush” is itself a hardscrabble background, a sentiment with which Jenna might very well agree. Maybe I’m just reading between the lines (#ReadwithJenna), but Jenna’s curation presents an argument, or at the very least a readerly preoccupation. It’s not a vibe I would lay at the feet of any one title, but something bubbling between the picks, an editorializing hand at work. It goes something like this:
Although life can be messy at times, our struggles make us stronger. We can blame other people for so much, and that’s fair, that’s totally fair; but it’s in our hands, and ours alone, to fix things. We must be the strong ones. We should put aside our differences, face the challenge, and come together for a reconciliation.
He proudly made merch that quotes Trump saying, “This is the only Bush that got it right.” I’m sure he is invited to Kennebunkport this summer.
The goal here is not to cancel, chide, or call anybody out. I learned about the Read with Jenna book club because the store I worked at consistently sold out of the titles she chose.
Maybe there has been and it was just not made public. If you or someone you know declined Jenna’s endorsement please hit me up!