I try to stay comprehensively apolitical on this site. I know we all come from different backgrounds and even different parts of the world. I don’t plan to change and join the fray in the political process here, but I was reading an article at 99u about President Obama’s productivity habits and that got me thinking about his reading habits.
What is the President Reading, or What Has he Read?
On April 18, 2010 President Obama was cited in the Washington Post as having read:
- Joseph O’Neill’s post-Sept. 11 novel “Netherland,” which had recently won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award; and
Probably the most convenient tool I found to track the President’s reading is a page Barnes and Noble compiled where they sell the books the President’s been reading. Handy.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Obama’s reading of fiction, or at least saw the opportunity to throw a sharp barb his way. Ann Coulter has specifically criticized the President for his fiction reading habit on Twitter. What do you think? Should a president read fiction?
On January 25, 2010, The Economist tapped into the President’s habit of reading magazines voraciously while talking with David Axelrod. The message is a bit self-serving since they mention their own magazine, but they do list a few others like the New Yorker.
On August 20, 2010, CBS News reported President Obama had been given an advance copy of Freedom, by Jonthan Franzen and bought some other books before a vacation. It’s less than clear from the article whether he found the time on vacation to finish them.
The same article included a photo of him leaving Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard, too. I’ve never been there, but it’d be neat to visit now that I know it has supplied a president.
What Should the President be Reading?
Now, there are a few articles which have suggested what the president should be reading, and those may get a little political and I apologize in advance.
On July 3, 2012, Ross Douthat, writing for the NY Times suggested the following to President Obama:
- Jonathan Rauch’s “Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working”
- “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America,” by Richard White; and
- “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” by the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell.
On August 14, 2012 the LA Times “the Times’ book staff asked writers, historians and cultural observers for their suggestions on books that could help Romney or Obama govern effectively over the next four years” and went on to recommend a slew of works including:
- “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens
What could be more appropriate for these two candidates during this time of class warfare than a story about the journey from the 99% to the 1% (and back) told by one of the greatest English novelists of all time? I think both the president and Romney could find a lot to relate to in the misadventures of Pip. President Obama could relate to Pip’s jump from nothing to master of the universe in no time at all. And Mitt Romney — well he can relate to being rich.
- “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
Romney can view the ugliness of veiled racism and the importance of moral courage. Obama can note that dignity and class in the face of outrageous insult wins admiration — and maybe votes.
- “Bulfinch’s Greek and Roman Mythology”
A Harvard man who moved back with his parents, Bulfinch never married and became a bank clerk so he could focus on his true passion: giving the world classic tales of myth. The Greeks believed their kingdom was the actual center of the earth, and all other nations were only considered in relation to them. Their major and minor gods and goddesses have fantastic, fanatical confrontations with themselves and with humans over land and love, etc., etc. And reading — or rereading — these will help the candidates remember how unimaginative and neurotic these battles continue to be when self-absorption rules.
Not a bad set of recommendations for us all to consider.
Photographic Evidence of President Obama Reading
Finally, if you need photographic evidence of the President’s enthusiasm for books, you can see photos of him reading “Where the Wild Things Are.” I particularly liked the photos because that’s one of my favorite books of all time. I enjoyed the Dave Eggers adaptation, as well.
Historically, Presidents Read
I’m not historically inclined enough to know who first started the habit, but I do know Lincoln read and memorized large portions of the Leaves of Grass.
If you’re into audio you can listen to an interview with Presidential biographer, Edmund Morris, about the reading habits of the 26th president (Theodore Roosevelt) and how an appreciation of fiction is a sign of a rich mind. While it’s not informative of Obama’s reading habits, it does give you an idea of the rich tradition of reading in the presidency.
One of the roles of the president is to to be a role model for the citizens. He attempts to influence the people, inside and outside of government. I’d say by the way the media follows his every move he’s in the public eye daily. Personally, I like to see a President engage with books on occasion. Not because I have a political agenda, but because I think reading is worth supporting.
What do you think? What should President Obama be reading? What has he read that I missed? Is he doing his part to spread the reading “bug?”