All the President’s Books

A Newsweek infographic listing every book US President Barack Obama has read since he ran for president in 2008 makes for interesting, er, reading. In September 2008, for example, Obama was reading Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age by political scientist Larry Bartels, in which the author, according to the blurb, “shows the gap between the rich and poor has increased greatly under Republican administrations and decreased slightly under Democrats, leaving America grossly unequal.” Curiously, just a few months before, on 17 April 2008, Bartels wrote an op-ed in the New York Times demolishing a controversial statement made by Obama about small-town people (that they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”). Obviously the man can take criticism.

Mash-up image of Presidents Obama and Lincoln by Sascha Stefan Ruehlow, via Flickr.

Mash-up image of Presidents Obama and Lincoln by Sascha Stefan Ruehlow, via Flickr.

By November, as President-elect, Obama was taking himself on a crash course in presidency, drawing inspiration from Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. In the second half of 2008, he read two books on each, including Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer. Around this time, coincidentally or not, veteran New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote:

“Although Fred Kaplan, the author of Lincoln, never mentions Mr. Obama by name, it’s hard to read this volume without thinking of the current president-elect - who turns out to share a startling array of philosophical and literary qualities with his predecessor, as well as an equanimity of demeanor - and this book’s focus on the role that language and writing played in one president’s life promises to shed light on the role they may play in another’s.”

Are we starting to see a trend emerging here? Does President Obama take his reading cues from the Gray Lady’s book pages? He even found time to read Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution - and How it Can Renew America, by erstwhile Gray Lady columnist Thomas Friedman. Obama’s version of the green revolution has been stalled by economic realities. On the other hand, his reading of Gordon M. Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster (“A compelling portrait of a man once serenely confident, searching decades later for self-understanding", according to Richard Holbrooke in - yes - the New York Times Book Review) was either intended to help him extricate the US from more contemporary entanglements or a harbinger of things to come for Obama himself.

There’s a solitary woman on the list of authors, which is also predominantly American. On the flip side, it’s reassuring to see that there’s a lot of fiction and poetry on the list (Derek Walcott!) - although, dare we say it, there are interesting observations to be made here, too. We find the usual standard-bearers of contemporary American lit - Dave Eggers’s What is the What, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom - and Obama takes up the small-town folk theme again with Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong. But dig a little deeper and it would seem that some of the titles have an interesting father-son theme. Obama (who, as is widely known, was raised by a single mother) goes for gritty urban realism with father-and-son themes in The Way Home by Wire writer George Pelecanos, while Brad Leithauser’s A Few Corrections is about a son on a quest to find out the truth about his late father’s life.

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