A bookish tour through Obama's years in the White House
As Barack Obama leaves the White House, there will be a lot of books to pack.
For the last eight years, the president has often been photographed with a book under his arm or standing in line with his daughters at D.C.'s Politics & Prose bookstore. His ability to rocket a book to the top of the best-seller list just by picking it up, is rivaled only by Oprah Winfrey's. And when it comes to books, he prefers the paper kind — the kind that are going to fill a lot of boxes.
Recently he sat down with Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic for The New York Times, to talk about how reading was an integral part of his presidency.
"I think that I found myself better able to imagine what's going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction," Obama said. "It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful."
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Obama is far from the only bookworm to have occupied the Oval Office. His predecessor, George W. Bush, had an annual reading contest with Karl Rove — they even measured by the square inch of text. Bill Clinton once read 300 books in a single year. Theodore Roosevelt could finish as many as three a day.
As the current reader-in-chief finishes his term, we've gathered a list of many of the books Obama recommended, read and bought while in office. No list can be complete, but it offers a bookish glimpse into the mind of a president.
Six months before the 2008 election
Cameras first strained to see what book Obama was carrying back in May 2008, when The New York Times captured a photo of him holding "The Post-American World" by Fareed Zakaria. The best-selling book offered a forward-looking analysis of shifting world powers, which Zakaria called "the rise of the rest."
November and December 2008
"Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Goodwin's analysis of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet picks was said to have influenced Obama's own picks, particularly that of Hillary Clinton, his former rival for the Democratic Party nomination. According to Politico, the book shot up the charts that November, three years after it had been published.
"Collected Poems 1948 — 1984" by Derek Walcott
Obama's affinity for poetry has been evident since just three days after he won the election. He was spotted carrying Derek Walcott's collection around Chicago. He went on to have Elizabeth Alexander read a poem at his inauguration that January, and Richard Blanco at his second inauguration in 2013.
Poet Yusef Komunyakaa even wrote a poem about the feeling of seeing Obama with that Walcott collection: "The Day I Saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott's Collected Poems."
"Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001" by Steve Coll
Once elected, Obama immediately began studying up on relevant topics. A month before he assumed office, he reportedly read the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter's history of covert wars in Afghanistan.
"Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet" by Jeffrey D. Sachs
Sachs, an economist, puts forth possibilities for coping with global warming through international collaboration.
Four months into his presidency, Obama's reading list was predictably dominated by briefing reports, but he found a break for fiction.
"Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill
"When I asked him if he was reading anything good, he said he had become sick enough of briefing books to begin reading a novel in the evenings," David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times.
That novel was "Netherland," about a man adrift in New York City who looks for company among other cricket players.
"What the What" by Dave Eggers
According to Politico, Obama found Eggers' book about a real-life Sudanese refugee so important, he encouraged White House aides to read it, too.
The president's first summer vacation at Martha's Vineyard, which became an Obama family tradition, involved a big stack of books.
"The Way Home" by George Pelecanos
Crime writer Pelecanos' novel revolves around a son trying to stay clean after run-ins with the law and his volatile relationship with his father.
"Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America" by Tom Friedman
Clean energy and global warming were clearly on Obama's mind.
"Lush Life" by Richard Price
Novelist Price traces the repercussions of a shooting on the Lower East Side, where wealth and poverty have an uneasy coexistence.
"Plainsong" by Kent Haruf
This contemporary family drama, set on the Colorado plains, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
"John Adams" by David McCullough
Is there a feeling unique to presidents when they read biographies of other presidents? Wouldn't it be impossible not to imagine your own?
Back in Martha's Vineyard for the summer, after the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill filled the first half of the year, and Obama picked up three novels at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore.
"Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen
Obama picked up Franzen's best-seller, about the fragile and tense relationship between a married couple in St. Paul, Minn., who ultimately move to D.C.
"Tinkers" by Paul Harding
The 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, "Tinkers" tells the deathbed memories of a clock repairman, as he thinks back on his own life and the life of his father.
"A Few Corrections" by Brad Leithauser
On the first page of the novel is an obituary, for one Wesley Sultan, who appears to have led a rather unremarkable life. Each chapter that follows, however, offers a correction to that same obituary, from the people who knew Wesley best.
The president also reportedly picked up two books for his daughters during that shopping trip:
"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee
Obama's love for the novel is no secret; he went so far as to reference Atticus Finch in his farewell speech earlier this month.
"The Red Pony" by John Steinbeck
The months before saw the killing of Osama bin Laden by a U.S. special forces team. The president's summer reading list brought meditations on war, loss, art and race — with a dose of detective fiction.
"The Bayou Trilogy: Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do" by Daniel Woodrell
Best known for writing "Winter's Bone," Woodrell is a prolific novelist. "The Bayou Trilogy" follows a boxer-turned-cop in a Louisiana swamp town.
"Rodin's Debutante" by Ward Just
Set in Obama's adopted hometown of Chicago in the 1950's, Just's novel is a coming-of-age story about art, violence and opportunity.
"Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese
Verghese's family saga follows twin boys born in Ethiopia in the 1950's.
"To the End of the Land" by David Grossman
An Israeli mother finds herself unmoored after her son re-enlists in the army. She sets out on a hike to Galilee, confronting love, loss and war.
"The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson
The lone nonfiction entry on his 2011 summer reading list, "The Warmth of Other Suns" describes the mass migration of African-Americans from the South to northern cities.
What books may have been on his nightstand at the moment remains a mystery, but the president read a favorite aloud at the White House Easter Egg Roll. Extra points for facial expressions.
"Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak
The 2012 election
The president's summer reading list was not released in 2012, as he ran against Mitt Romney for a second term. The campaign likely captured his free time.
That was the year he was asked repeatedly about E.L. James' erotic best-seller, "Fifty Shades of Grey." The first time it happened, on The View, he said he didn't know it. A second time, in an interview with Entertainment Tonight, he said, "I'm glad folks are entertained."
Campaign coverage also seized on comparing Obama's favorite books to Romney's favorite books, as listed on their respective Facebook pages. Obama's favorite books on Facebook, which have not been updated since, are:
• "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison
• "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville
• Shakespeare's Tragedies
"Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963" by Taylor Branch
This book shows up again 2016, when Obama was asked to name the books that shaped him as a person.
"Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson
Obama is such a fan of Robinson's, he actually interviewed her about her writing in the fall of 2015. Their conversation is available from The New York Review of Books.
The year also passed without a summer reading list, but Obama turned out at his neighborhood bookstore, Politics & Prose, on Thanksgiving weekend and picked up quite the stack. (Many of the books were likely gifts, unless Obama had simply misplaced his copy of "Harold and the Purple Crayon.")
The bookstore visit came just two months after the first online exchange for health insurance launched under the Affordable Care Act — and six months after Edward Snowden fled to Hong Kong after leaking documents relating to NSA surveillance.
"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra
Marra's critically acclaimed novel offers a glimpse into a history not many Americans are familiar with: The modern Chechen-Russian conflict. Obama bought the book just six months after the Boston Marathon bombing, which was carried about by two Chechen brothers and brought Chechnya into the news. After hearing Obama had picked up his book, Mara wrote an article for the New Republic: "Obama Bought My Novel. Here's What I Hope He Learns From It."
"Red Sparrow" by Jason Matthews
This international spy thriller kicks off when a Russian agent is sent to seduce a CIA agent, and it only gets more tangled from there. Perfect for those days when your foreign intelligence briefings aren't exciting enough?
"The Lowland" by Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri's novel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, is a family saga that crosses from India to the U.S.
"Wild: From Lost to Found On the Pacific Crest Trail" by Cheryl Strayed
Strayed's wildly successful memoir about her grueling thousand-mile hike made its way onto many a nightstand. With three more years of the presidency, perhaps he needed a dose of perseverance?
Obama may be as big of a sports fan as he is a reader, and he combined the two here, picking up "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance" by David Epstein and "Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football" by Nicholas Dawidoff.
Clearly a fiction fan, Obama also picked up:
• "Half Brother" by Kenneth Oppel, the story of a thirteen-year-old brother whose parents bring home a new sibling: a chimpanzee
• Carson McCullers' classic story collection, "Ballad of the Sad Cafe"
• Willa Cather's western classic, "My Antonia"
• E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," which captures the spirit of the country just before the dawn of World War I
• Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner," the moving novel of two young boys in Afghanistan
• "Buddha in the Attic" by Julie Otsuka, a novel that traces the history of "picture brides" — Japanese women brought over to San Francisco in the early 1900s
• "All That Is" by James Salter, which follows a World War II veteran as he returns home to find the world changed
From the younger readers in his life, Obama got:
• "Heart of a Samurai" by Margi Preus
• "Flora and Ulysses" by Kate DiCamillo
• "Jinx" by Sage Blackwood
• "Lulu and the Brontosaurus" by Judith Viorst and Lane Smith
• "Ottoline and the Yellow Cat" by Chris Riddell
• "Moonday" by Adam Rex
• "Journey" by Aaron Becker
• And, of course, "Harold and the Purple Crayon" by Crockett Johnson
After a year rife with social and international upheaval in which ISIS, Ebola and the killing of Michael Brown made headlines, Obama renewed his commitment to Small Business Saturday with another trip to Politics & Prose. With First Daughters Sasha and Malia in tow, he picked out a tall stack of books.
"Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End" by Atul Gawande
Physician-turned-author Gawande shares his views on end-of-life-care and the role of medicine in not just prolonging life, but ensuring a good end.
"Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China" by Evan Osnos
Osnos explores the "new China," as the country undergoes a massive economic and cultural shift.
"Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson's poetic, autobiographical book was written for middle-grade readers, but attracted many adults after it won the National Book Award. Woodson writes about her childhood, split between South Carolina and New York, and what it meant to be born into the middle of the Civil Rights movement.
"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan
Flanagan's novel took home the 2014 Man Booker Prize. It's an epic novel that covers the experiences of an Australian doctor in a Japanese POW camp.
"The Laughing Monsters" by Denis Johnson
Johnson's slim novel tells the story of two friends, both scarred by violence and war, who reunite in Sierra Leone with a tangled, illicit plan to make a lot of money.
"All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr
Doerr's World War II drama about a German soldier and a young, blind French woman won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad
Did Obama miss his college days? He picked up this syllabus staple: Conrad's dark, hypnotic classic about a trip down the Congo River.
"Nora Webster" by Colm Toibin
Toibin's novel tells the story of a widow in Ireland navigating a deep sea of grief.
For young readers, Obama picked up:
• the first three books in Brian Jacques' beloved "Redwall" series
• the first two books in the "Junie B. Jones" series
• "Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms" by Katherine Rundell, a middle-grade novel about a young girl who leaves Zimbabwe for a London boarding school
• "Nuts to You" by Lynn Rae Perkins," an adventure story about a trio of squirrel friends
• an "I Spy" sticker book
• and a story collection all about life on the farm, "A Barnyard Collection: Click, Clack, Moo and More" by Doreen Cronin
"Redeployment" by Phil Klay
Klay's collection of short stories about life as a soldier won the 2014 National Book Award for fiction. Klay himself served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq. In an interview on CNN, Obama recommended the book, calling it a "quick, but powerful, and for me, painful set of stories."
Gun violence dominated the news, as did a fight over the Confederate flag. The Syrian refugee crisis captured global attention, and a June Supreme Court ruling allowed same-sex marriages across the country.
Obama's summer vacation allowed him to get to some of the reading he picked up the previous fall: "All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr and "The Lowland" by Jhumpa Lahiri.
For nonfiction picks, Obama dug into issues of global warming, race relations and the life of our first president.
"The Sixth Extinction" by Elizabeth Kolbert
Kolbert's book explains that we are experiencing an extinction period right now — the sixth in the history of the planet.
"Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Framed as a letter to his son, Coates confronts issues of race and what it means to grow up black in America.
"Washington: A Life" by Ron Chernow
At the end of his penultimate year in the White House, Obama revealed his favorite book of the year:
"Fates and Furies" by Lauren Groff
Groff's highly acclaimed novel tells the story of a marriage — from both sides. The first half of the novel offers the husband's perspective, the second half offers the wife's, highlighting contradictions and miscommunications.
Also on his reading list that winter:
"The Whites" by Richard Price
Price crafts the story of a dishonored New York City police sergeant in charge of the overnight shift, who catches a case that drags back his past demons.
"Purity" by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen's modern coming-of-age story follows a girl saddled with student debt who embarks on a bizarre journey in an attempt to find her father's identity.
"The Three-Body Problem" by Liu Cixin
Translated from Chinese, this sci-fi tale became an instant hit. It centers on a looming alien invasion, and the fight over how best to prepare on Earth.
"The Wright Brothers" by David McCullough
McCullough turns his eye on the lives of Orville and Wilbur, and what led them to their historic flight.
With the contentious 2016 presidential race already in full swing, Obama left for his last summer getaway in Martha's Vineyard.
"Barbarian Days" by William Finnegan
Maybe Obama was missing his Hawaii days? Finnegan's memoir about surfing the world from Hawaii to Fiji, Tonga and Southeast Asia won the Pulitzer for best autobiography.
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead's transcendent novel was on everyone's reading list this summer, from Obama to Oprah. Whitehead reimagines the Underground Railroad as an actual train that ran beneath the earth, ferrying runaway slaves to the North.
"H is for Hawk" by Helen Macdonald
Macdonald's memoir winds together the stories of grappling with her father's unexpected death and raising a young goshawk, a bird of prey.
"The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins
Apparently no one could resist Hawkins' "Gone Girl"-style thriller, not even Obama.
"Seveneves" by Neal Stephenson
Stephenson's sci-fi novel takes place in the aftermath of the moon exploding, which triggers catastrophic consequences for Earth.
Book recommendations for his daughter
As Obama's oldest daughter, Malia, heads to college, he told The New York Times he was sending her off with a bunch of books, loaded onto a Kindle.
"The Naked and the Dead" by Norman Mailer
Mailer's 1948 classic is considered one of the best books ever written on war.
"One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Can't leave home without Garcia Marquez's sprawling story of magical realism and the Buendia family, apparently.
"The Golden Notebook" by Doris Lessing
Describing his last two picks as "books I think that are not on everybody's reading list these days," Obama recommended Lessing's novel that explores women's rights, the Cold War and the function of memory.
"The Woman Warrior" by Maxine Hong Kingston
Kingston winds traditional folklore into her memoir about growing up as a Chinese-American daughter in California.
The books that shaped Obama
In the coming months, Obama will likely have much more time to read — and to write. His own books may land on the reading lists of future presidents and influence how they lead.
In September, with just a few months left in the White House, Obama shared a list of his most influential books with Wired. (Reading them all, the magazine noted, would take you a hefty 89 hours.)
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln was a consistent influence for Obama, from Lincoln's own writings to Doris Kearns Goodwin's analysis of his leadership.
"Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63" by Taylor Branch
Branch's exhaustive history of the Civil Rights movement and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize.
"The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York" by Robert A. Caro
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book explores how city planner Robert Moses became one of the most powerful men in politics, without ever being elected to office.
"The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin
Baldwin's 1963 essay collection addresses the role of race and religion in America.
"Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American" by Richard S. Tedlow
Andy Grove's life story is nearly unbelievable. Born in Hungary in 1936, he survived the Holocaust but was caught in the subsequent Soviet invasion. After escaping to New York, completely penniless, he went on to become the CEO of Intel.
"Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari
"Sapiens" dives back into early, early human history — and explores what we can learn for the future.
"Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman
Nobel Prize winner Kahneman explores the science behind how humans think, and how we make decisions — emotionally or logically.
"The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" by Elizabeth Kolbert
Kolbert's celebrated book on how humans have changed the earth became a favorite of Obama's.
"In Dubious Battle" by John Steinbeck
The lone work of fiction on his list of influential books, Steinbeck's novel follows an activist organizing a fruit pickers strike in the 1930s.
"Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" by Katherine Boo
Boo's book about the lives of people in the Mumbai slums won the 2012 National Book Award.