Presidential Reading

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 biographerEdmund 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?”

Photo: Some rights reserved by USDAgov.


  1. Jennifer

    I’m just happy to see that the man reads. I’m happy to see ANYONE reading. Whether he reads fiction or nonfiction…both expand the mind.

  2. Brandon Monk

    I agree. President or pauper, grab a book.

  3. T. Lloyd Reilly

    Given the amount of reading the job as President requires of him, I think it is quite admirable that he makes time (emphasis on the makes) time to read for pleasure. It is the mark of an intelligent and caring man!

    1. Brandon Monk

      That’s a good point. We all know the President reads, but does he read for something other than his job? Good to know he does.

  4. Joseph

    I really can’t stand when people take the stance of seeing fiction as a complete waste of time when it’s so obvious how books are capable of making us more culturally aware, more empathetic, and more inspired to create things and better ourselves.

    Love the new website, by the way! Looking sharp.

    1. Brandon Monk

      Well said. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

      Thanks for the compliment and for noticing. I turned the design over to someone else to handle for me. I had reached the extent of what I could do with the site. I like what they did. Hopefully, everyone has a good experience with the new layout.

  5. Anita

    Interesting and informative post. I like the angle you took. Reading IS worth supporting.

    1. Brandon Monk

      Thank you, Anita.

  6. Chris Ciolli (@ChrisCiolli)

    Reading is always a worthwhile pursuit, and reading fiction is important, too. I like the new website design. Very spiffy, with clean lines. Thumbs up!

    1. Brandon Monk

      Thanks for the comment and the compliment. Have a great day.

  7. Jennifer

    I am always happy to see anyone read just about anything. I believe that reading is becoming a lost art and as a result we (as a nation) are losing the ability to write. Not only is reading an essential part of learning to communicate with others and express yourself effectively, it is also a breeding ground for compassion, understanding and inspiration. Thank God that the President is reading. More power to him if he can make the time for fun selections as well as intellectual non-fiction.

    1. Brandon Monk

      I agree. It’s all about making it a priority, even for a President.

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