My President Loves to Read

photo by The White House

For the last time in what I fear might be a long while, we have an American president who loves to read. Yesterday, the New York Times published an incredible piece on President Obama’s secret to surviving the White House. That secret? Books.

Obama obviously has profound respect for literature and writers. Every year, he releases his summer reading list and stops by a bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard to load up on books, and he even lists his favorite books on his official Facebook page. He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle loaded with books he wanted to share with her. He’s become friends and pen pals with Marilynne Robinson, the acclaimed novelist and professor emeritus at the University of Iowa, and last week, Obama had lunch with writers Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, and Barbara Kingsolver (what a dream lunch party, right?). In the age of celebrity autobiographies and celebrity autobiography ghostwriters, it’s easy to forget that Obama has written three books himself and will soon be at work on his fourth. In his interview with Michiko Kakutani, Obama revealed that he also wrote short stories during his time as a community organizer in Chicago.

As for President-Elect Trump, Samantha Bee makes a compelling argument that he actually can’t read. If he can read, he certainly doesn’t read very much. Trump’s The Art of the Deal ghostwriter Tony Schwartz told the New Yorker in 2016, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” Other than “his” book The Art of the Deal, Trump has asserted that he enjoys the Bible and All Quiet on the Western Front, and Ivana Trump has alleged that her former husband kept My New Order, a collection of Hitler’s speeches, near his bedside. When Megyn Kelly asked Trump to name the last book he read, he said, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.” Don’t hold your breath for beautiful, thoughtful, and relevant reading lists from Trump.

When Obama talked about the power and meaning that he has gleaned from books, I heard the words of every person I’ve ever known who loves to read. When he felt like an outsider as a child living in Indonesia and Hawaii, Obama took refuge in books, portable worlds that he could enter and belong to whenever he chose. He described an intense reading period in his 20s when he was reintroduced “to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.” He took this passion for words into his community organizing work, where he learned that shared stories and storytelling have the capacity to forge lasting relationships and create real change. Storytelling is indispensable to our future.

In the era of a Trump presidency, we must read. We must read fiction about lives like ours and lives unlike ours. We must read about systemic racism, mass incarceration, civil rights, and social justice. We will read until we have another president who understands that our stories are what bring us together, and we will keep reading after. 

Here are some of the books President Obama has recommended or been seen reading in the past eight years:

·       A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul

·       A Few Corrections by Brad Leithauser

·       All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

·       All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

·       Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American by Richard S. Tedlow

·       Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

·       The Bayou Trilogy: Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do by Daniel Woodrell

·       Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

·       Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

·       Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

·       Collected Poems 1948-1984 by Derek Walcott

·       The Collected Works by Abraham Lincoln

·       Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

·       The Defining Moment by Jonathan Alter

·       Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

·       The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

·       For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

·       Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

·       Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

·       The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

·       The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

·       Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

·       H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

·       Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Tom Friedman

·       In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck

·       John Adams by David McCullough

·       Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

·       Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan

·       The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

·       Lush Life by Richard Price

·       Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

·       One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

·       Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch

·       Plainsong by Kent Haruf

·       The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

·       The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

·       The Quiet American by Graham Greene

·       The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

·       Rodin’s Debutant by Ward Just

·       Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

·       Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

·       Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

·       The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

·       Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

·       Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois

·       Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

·       Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith

·       The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

·       Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

·       Tinkers by Paul Harding

·       To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

·       To the End of the Land by David Grossman

·       The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

·       The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

·       Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

·       The Way Home by George Pelecanos

·       Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

·       The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

·       Working by Studs Terkel

by Dahlia Balcazar
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Dahlia Balcazar was a senior editor at Bitch Media, the co-host of the podcast Backtalk, and the host of the live show Feminist Snack Break. She’s passionate about horror films, ’90s music, girl gangs, and Shirley Jackson. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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