Commentary: Does Netanyahu read books Documentary makes one wonder

"People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading," wrote Logan Pearsall Smith, writer, aphorist and bibliophile.

Benjamin Netanyahu could not be suspected of such a sentiment. Over a period of several months, a camera crew followed him around and recorded scenes from his life with almost total freedom. The result, recently produced for British television, was edited into revealing vignettes that show him at work on a typical day in his office, settling down with his family in the prime ministerial residence, greeting visitors, musing in his car, and trying and failing to persuade his son to practice the piano. It was a sympathetic, even if at times awkwardly stagy, portrait.

One significant human activity, however, was absent. The prime minister, to judge from this record, does not read books. Indeed, from all we saw, his official home on Balfour Street in Jerusalem seems bereft of such objects.

I wonder why. It might be that this ambitious son of an unsuccessful author came to the conclusion that books do not form stepping stones to a career. Maybe he lacks the equanimity and powers of concentration required to contemplate ideas between hard covers. Or perhaps he simply prefers to put up his feet and reach for his cigar box and a six-pack.

Lack of interest in books is not a crime. But in this case it seems to be a reality.

True, Netanyahu's office boasts a shelf of the Encyclopedia Judaica. These were probably inherited from his predecessors. In fact, the encyclopedia seems to have become almost part of the regulation furnishings of ministerial offices in Israel. One half-suspects that the books are not three-dimensional but a trompe l'oeil — perhaps just a strip of blue wallpaper.

It might be argued that, even if he shows little evidence of reading them, Netanyahu writes books. Unkind rumor has it that he benefited from ghostly assistance in these efforts. This in itself should not be held against him. Winston Churchill, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, had a number of helpers — though, unlike Netanyahu, he managed to produce works of enduring literary and historical significance rather than instant candidates for remaindering or pulping.

The contrast with Shimon Peres is stark. Like his friend the late President Francois Mitterrand, Peres surrounds himself with books. What is more, there is abundant evidence that he actually does read them.

So did his mentor David Ben-Gurion. I recall being astonished by their number and variety when I called on him once in his home in Sde Boker. On a visit to England, in the 1940s, Ben-Gurion disappeared for a whole day from the Zionist headquarters in Great Russell Street. He was eventually discovered, holed up in the classics department of Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford, happily absorbed in the philosophy of the ancient world and oblivious to the passage of time.

Does it matter that Netanyahu does not read books? Some of the great statesmen of history were avid readers: William Ewart Gladstone, Napoleon, Theodor Herzl.

Herbert Samuel was a voracious reader, particularly during his time as high commissioner in Palestine. Others read little, including Golda Meir and Ronald Reagan.

Some of the foremost monsters of modern times, including Hitler and Mussolini, had bookish inclinations. Great readers are not necessarily great leaders.

One possibility is that Netanyahu does his reading in secret — rather as that great bibliophile, Gladstone, did good by stealth, rescuing fallen women incognito at night while he was prime minister.

It may be that Netanyahu fears that to be shown perusing anything other than official papers would harm his image with significant parts of his political constituency. That may well be so — but should this comfort us?

Recently I attended a dinner of the Anthony Trollope Society at which the former British prime minister, John Major, spoke wittily and evidently from first-hand knowledge about the Victorian writer's novels. Could Netanyahu similarly impress the Israeli Trollope Society?

I would not maintain that Major was a better prime minister because he read novels — though such a case might be made for one of his predecessors, Harold Macmillan, who was fascinated by the intrigues of Trollope's Barsetshire. Major was a lackluster politician. But as I heard him speak, I felt that his reading had made him a better human being.

Perhaps that is Netanyahu's problem: He lacks the essential humanity that a sophisticated literary awareness can awaken. Having eschewed reading, has he, in a profound and disturbing sense, lost touch with life?