Heard on the Hill

For the Love of Literature: Durbin Has Formed Relationships Over Books

The Senate’s go-to bookworm has countless reading buddies

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., has a book in there somewhere. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A Georgetown student and bookworm named Dick Durbin worked at Discount Books and Records in Dupont Circle in the mid-1960s. 

The store is gone now, but that same bookworm is still handing out books — now to senators, presidents and Supreme Court justices.

“I worked in the bookstore and fell in love with books, and I’ve never gotten over it,” the Senate minority whip said.

Asked if one day he would write a book of his own, Durbin turned around in his desk chair, reached into a cabinet and pulled out a manila folder of papers.

“Somewhere in there is a book. I’ve got a rough draft,” he said, laughing. “But I haven’t put it together. I believe there’s a book in there somewhere. I’ve got to figure out how to find it.”

In the meantime, he reads a book a week and discovers new reads. His favorite authors include William Manchester, Timothy Egan and Candice Millard, and he prefers not to read about politics. Instead, the Illinois Democrat challenges himself with unfamiliar topics.

“What I love about books is when you discover something,” he said. “I love history; political science, per se, leaves me cold.”

Durbin has shared his love of literature with colleagues, forming long-standing relationships along the way.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 29: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., talk as they walk to the Senate Democrats' policy lunch on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The relationship between former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., had a lot to do with their love of books. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Harry Reid

Harry Reid was a voracious book reader, constantly reading books,” Durbin recalled about the former Democratic Senate leader. “He was a great friend to have because he was always plunging into areas with books that I never heard of, many times handing them off to me after he finished. I did the same for him, so we had a book exchange going constantly.”

Susan Collins

“Over the years, I’ve recommended books to her. She likes fiction, and I read probably three nonfiction to each fiction,” he said. “If I come across a good fiction book, I’ll recommend it. I’ve given her some which she’s just crazy about, so she’s always waiting for my next recommendation.”

John Cornyn

John Cornyn was in the gym one morning, and we started talking about Native Americans,” Durbin said. “And I said, ‘Let me tell you the best book I’ve read on Native Americans — it’s called “Empire of the Summer Moon” and it’s a story … that’s in Texas — you gotta read it.’

“He read the book, came back to me and said, ‘I’m giving that book as a gift to every Republican senator for Christmas. I think it’s such a good book.’ He just told me yesterday, ‘I sent one over to congressman [Steve] Scalise, [so] while he’s recovering, he could read it.’

“I ran into Jerry Moran, who mentioned Native Americans. ‘I’m looking for one good book,’ he says, so I referred him to that book as well.”

Supreme Court nominees

“There’s another book that I’ve given out to people and they all have one thing in common — they were all nominated for the Supreme Court. It’s called ‘Taming the Storm.’ It’s the story of Frank Johnson, a federal judge who was just an extraordinary, courageous man during the civil rights era,” Durbin said. “So I gave each one of them this book and said, ‘Hope this will inspire you when it comes to your decisions.’

“I’ve given it to [Chief Justice John] Roberts, [Justice Samuel] Alito, [Justice Sonia] Sotomayor, [Justice Elena] Kagan, [Justice Neil] Gorsuch, [Harriet] Miers and Merrick Garland,” Durbin said.

Barack Obama

“I gave [Barack] Obama a biography of Satchel Paige, just one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time — an African-American who was discriminated against,” the senator said.

Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall

“It’s interesting how these things unfold. Harry [Reid] recommended to me ‘The Lost City of the Monkey God,’ which is a very popular current book about the discovery of this lost city in Honduras. The author’s Douglas Preston, and he’s from New Mexico, so I go to Martin Heinrich and to [Tom] Udall and they say, ‘Oh, we know him,’” Durbin said.

“I say, ‘Why don’t you invite him to dinner?’ And they said ‘Great,’ and we did. It was about two or three weeks ago here in Washington. Inviting authors to talk about their books has been a real kick,” he said.

Durbin noted that he’s also welcomed authors Jeffrey Toobin and David Brooks, among others, to the Capitol.

Senators

“This book ‘The Pentagon’s Brain,’ I’ve given this out to four or five colleagues. It’s the history of DARPA, which is the top secret military research agency, and I gave a copy to the secretary of the Air Force. I just think it’s a good book,” Durbin said.

Staffers

Durbin dropped a copy of Sen. Paul H. Douglas’ biography on his communications director Ben Marter’s desk. The senator interned for Douglas while in college and now holds his seat.

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