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The Power of Books Shapes Path to the Presidency

by on February 8, 2017

Throughout presidential history, each of our 44 Presidents have expressed an eclectic list of their own favorites:  James Madison’s—John Locke, William McKinley’s—Lord Byron while Warren G. Harding favored The Rules of Poker.[1] Perhaps, no president since Abraham Lincoln has been as shaped by reading and writing as President Barack Obama.

As Former President Obama prepared to leave office earlier this month, Michiko Kakutani, book critic for The New York Times, interviewed him about his favorite books and the impact books have had during his life. The president explained that as a child who was often seen as an “outsider” he loved reading because books provided access to worlds that were “portable and were all yours.”  Later, like many teens, he lost interest in reading when sports, “chasing girls,” and doing things that “weren’t very healthy” distracted him.[2]

In college, however, he rediscovered writing and reading.  Although he described his life then as almost “hermetic”—living sparsely and as he describes it, “humorlessly”—President Obama analyzes the power contained in reading.  “The power of words [is] 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.”[3]

This re-discovery led him to his own short story writing and community organizing work.  The president was surprised to find that the two activities were closely aligned.  His stories and the lives of those in the community were “shared stories”—he learned to listen and discover the “sacred” in them.  The president found “an interest in public service and politics through storytelling.”[4]

Obama’s passion for writing and reading became a means of self-discovery and integration.  It helped him integrate all of the “crosscurrents” of his life—“race, class, family”—into “something relatively whole.”  This left him with a “pretty good sense of place and who I [was] and what [was] important to me.”  He credits that sense of self with his ability to remain “cool and composed” during his Presidency. (Staffers affectionately would refer to him as “No Drama Obama.”)[5]

Obama appreciates the art of fiction, “being better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people” anywhere.  Whether it be in the last novel he read, The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, “a reminder of the pains of slavery…and how it changes hearts and minds” or in Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, a description of the people in Iowa, a reminder for him of his own Midwestern grandparents, and an examination of their interior life. [6]

Obama’s definition is reminiscent of author’s, Joyce Carol Oates’: Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”[7]  During his terms in office, reading allowed him to “slow down and get perspective.” [8]

The former president admits certain books were “touchstones” during his two terms. Like Lincoln, he has embraced Shakespeare. He admits that like most high school students he found “the Bard” intolerable but by college, he came to appreciate the tragedies. Shakespeare, for the former president, has become “foundational” in understanding how human patterns and relationships repeat themselves and play out.[9]

During particularly difficult periods of his presidency, like the mass killings in Newtown, Ct, he would turn to the words of others—Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela.

Having left office, he looks forward to having the time to write and to expand his reading list.  In particular, he hopes to “dig into a whole bunch of literature—a whole bunch of writers, a lot of them young, who are probably writing the book I need to read.”[10]

Obama is certainly someone who espouses culture and the arts but he notes that reading and writing deserve special attention.  “There’s something particular about quieting yourself and having a sustained stretch of time that is different from music or television or even the greatest movies.”[11]

President Obama plans to eventually use his presidential center website “to widen the audience for good books” along with his already established list of book recommendations and to encourage a public “conversation about books.”[12]

For Barack Obama, reading is not only integral.  It may be embedded in our DNA. President Obama said, “We are a storytelling species.”[13]


[1] Odegard, Dave. “The Favorite Books of All 44 Presidents of the United States.” BuzzFeed. February 17, 2014. Accessed January 23, 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/daveodegard/the-favorite-books-of-all-44-presidents-of-the-united-states?utm_term=.jg8MX654w#.wdOaeGWZn.

[2] Kakutani, Michiko. “Obamas’ Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books.” The New York Times, January 16, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2017. https//nyti.ms/2iCIKCR.

[3] Kakutani, Michiko. “Transcript: President Obama on What Books Mean to Him.” The New York Times, January 16, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2017. https://nyti.ms/2jP4xda.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Bausells, Marta. “Why We Read: Authors and Readers on the Power of Literature.” The Guardian, April 23, 2016. Accessed January 23, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/23/why-we-read-authors-and-readers-on-the-power-of-literature.

[8] Kakutani, Michiko. “Obamas’ Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books.” The New York Times, January 16, 2017. Accessed January 23, 2017. https//nyti.ms/2iCIKCR.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

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