Reader’s Corner: Obama’s Books

Something unlikely to be seen in the next four years: the President out buying books (Pete Souza)
Something unlikely to be seen in the next four years: the President out buying books (Pete Souza)

No matter what was going on in the world, President Obama always found time to read, preferably for at least an hour a night, according to Michiko Kakutani. This wasn’t just a habit that relaxed him, it also provided grist for the mill:

In today’s polarized environment, where the internet has let people increasingly retreat to their own silos (talking only to like-minded folks, who amplify their certainties and biases), the president sees novels and other art (like the musical Hamilton) as providing a kind of bridge that might span usual divides and ‘a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day.’

He points out, for instance, that the fiction of Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri speak ‘to a very particular contemporary immigration experience,’ but at the same time tell stories about ‘longing for this better place but also feeling displaced’ — a theme central to much of American literature, and not unlike books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow that are ‘steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up.’

You can get a sense of the breadth of his recent reading in his last couple of summer reading lists compiled by the White House:

  • “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan
  • “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
  • “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald
  • “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins
  • “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson
  • “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
  • “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow

It’s a superb mix of literary and popular fiction, along with of-the-comment commentary and even science fiction (who’d have thought the president, any president, would be reading Neal Stephenson?), the kind of list that a particularly good bookseller would have put in your hands if you told them: “What’s good now?”

So, if Obama’s looking for something to do, maybe there’s a bookstore hiring.

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