As Barack Obama’s presidency draws to a close this week, the book world is revisiting the literary legacy of the man recently dubbed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “reader in chief.” Over the course of his two terms in office, President Obama’s reading choices have run the gamut, from Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award–winning novel The Underground Railroad and David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography John Adams to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (both Bas Bleu favorites in 2015). Obama awarded national honors to a multitude of authors—including Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Toni Morrison, Rita Dove, Harper Lee, and Tobias Wolff—and launched literary initiatives to make e-books and library cards more readily available for students across America.
During a recent conversation between the president and Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times’s chief book critic, Obama discussed how books have shaped his life and career. Over the course of their discussion about reading, writing, sharing books with his daughter, Shakespeare, and more, Obama remarked upon the important perspective reading gave him during his presidency: “At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes—those two things have been invaluable to me.”
How They Read
But Obama isn’t the only avid reader to have occupied the White House. In his 2014 article “8 Surprising Tales of Presidential Reading,” Tevi Troy, author of What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House, notes that Theodore Roosevelt allegedly read two or three books a day. If a conversation bored him, he was known to pick up a book and begin reading, even at parties, and he read to kill time while waiting for appointments or trains.
According to the Daily Beast, James Garfield grew up poor, with limited access to books, so when he began college he read all he could to catch up. During his military career, he kept “several volumes of classics with him at all times.” In his 1974 farewell address to the nation, Richard Nixon said, “As you know, I kind of like to read books. I am not educated, but I do read books.” Biographer Conrad Black called Nixon an “avid reader,” who “would often retreat to a secret room in the Old Executive Office to read and nap.” George W. Bush read 186 books between 2006 and 2008, finished fourteen biographies of Abraham Lincoln during his presidency, and reread the Bible annually. Writing for the Washington Post, Troy reports that in 1977, Jimmy Carter and his daughter Amy took a speed-reading class together, enabling the president to read at least two books a week while in office.
Educated Through Books
It’s no surprise to devoted readers and attentive voters that “Books have been the most consistently used cultural tool by all presidents, to project an intellectual image to the American people.” Yet during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books could be expensive and not easy to come by. Abraham Lincoln grew up with only a few books, including the Bible, Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Life of Washington by Parson Weems. According to Troy:
In the absence of new material, [Lincoln] read the few books he had over and over again, and internalized their messages. From the Bible and Shakespeare he learned a common but elevated language. From Aesop he learned the artful use of anecdotes to make a point. From Weems he gained an appreciation of how a leader can capture the people’s hearts. His reading deserves, and receives, much of the credit for Lincoln’s extraordinary evolution from…poor backwoodsman to our poet president.
Woodrow Wilson didn’t learn to read until he was ten (perhaps due to dyslexia), but later was able to read in several languages and served as president of Princeton University. James Monroe dropped out of the College of William and Mary in 1776 to enlist in the Continental Army, and in later life supplemented his abbreviated college career through reading. George Washington had no formal education, but enjoyed reading about the topics most relevant to his adult life: agriculture and military tactics.
From the Library of…
Many of our former presidents curated extensive personal libraries throughout their lives. Rutherford B. Hayes claimed a collection of 12,000 volumes, heavily featuring his favorite author, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even helped to develop a free library in his home state of Ohio. John Adams’s personal library included 3,000 volumes; he once told his wife, Abigail, “I have been imprudent, I have spent an estate in books.” When Millard Fillmore became president, “there was not so much as a Bible in the White House.” His schoolteacher wife took care of that, transforming a second-floor room into a library with $250 from an appropriations act; eventually the Fillmores’ collection numbered 4,000 volumes. Franklin Delano Roosevelt left behind an impressive 22,000-volume personal library when he died. But perhaps no president’s collection is as famous as Thomas Jefferson’s: When the British destroyed the Library of Congress in 1814, Jefferson sold the United States 6,487 books from his own collection to restock the nation’s library. Total book bill: $23,950.
Since the mid-twentieth century, presidential reading habits haven’t gone unnoticed by the American public. John F. Kennedy’s penchant for James Bond novels was likely overblown in the press, but it certainly helped to boost Ian Fleming’s sales. Fiction-lover Ronald Reagan helped to make Tom Clancy’s debut novel The Hunt for Red October a bestseller after the president praised it during a press conference. In 1996, Bill Clinton told C-SPAN, “I love mysteries. I’m an addict; that’s one of my little cheap thrills outlet [sic]. I’m always reading mysteries.” When novels by Walter Mosley and Michael Connelly made President Clinton’s reading lists, sales jumped. President Obama’s reading choices also have resulted in bumps in sales for multiple titles, including Lush Life by Richard Price, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Plainsong by Kent Haruf, and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Under the Influence
Perhaps most important, presidential reading habits sometimes influence the political choices of the White House’s chief residents. According to Troy, “Reading lists don’t only give presidents a break from the tedium of briefing documents; they can also inform their politics and policies, reaffirming, creating or shifting their views.” Richard Nixon, who called himself a “Tolstoyan,” “often sought out books with links to the big issues of the day. After a summit with the Soviets, for instance, he bought a copy of Winston Churchill’s Triumph and Tragedy so he could reread Churchill’s recollections of the Yalta conference.” Troy also credits President Harry Truman’s support for Israel to youthful readings of the Bible and Charles F. Horne’s Great Men and Famous Women, which included the story of Cyrus the Great, the Persian king “who let the Jews return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. Shortly after leaving the White House, Truman was introduced to a group of Jewish leaders as having ‘helped create’ the state of Israel. ‘What do you mean “helped create?”’ Truman bristled. ‘I am Cyrus.’” Teddy Roosevelt’s appreciation for naturalist writers like John Audubon helped shape his interest in the conservation of America’s natural resources. And in his interview with Kakutani, President Obama said reading the tragedies of William Shakespeare has been “foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.”
Most of us will never have to contend with the extraordinary choices—and subsequent burdens—the American president must face. Yet by reflecting upon the wisdom and perspective we glean throughout our own reading lives, it stands to reason that our nation’s leaders also can gain from books a wealth of insight and knowledge into the world around us and the vast diversity of people, cultures, and experiences within it. As President Obama said in a 2015 New York Review of Books interview with novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson:
When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that.