The often repeated claim that Barack Obama will be America’s most bookish president is probably a little harsh on the 43 past residents of the White House. Recently Karl Rove, George Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff from 2004 until 2007, revealed his boss read 95 books in 2006 and another 51 in 2007 but no-one is praising Mr Bush’s devotion to the written word.
Still, Barack Obama is clearly an avid reader and literature has massively influenced his politics. He talks about books at the drop of a hat, is frequently seen with a book in his hand and, of course, has penned two worldwide bestsellers himself. He has won Grammys for the audio versions of both his books – Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope. He even used book tour appearances designed to promote The Audacity of Hope as thinly-veiled political rallies to position himself as the next Democratic contender for the presidency.
Books by him, about him or read by him sell. Signed copies of his books are now extremely collectable and in November 2008 AbeBooks.com sold a signed copy of Dreams From My Father for $5,500.
The last time someone from Chicago talked this much about literature we ended up with Oprah’s book club. Obama’s book club might be unofficial but it has influenced book sales drastically. What’s Barack Obama’s favourite book? has been a common question posed on the Internet search engines.
In May 2008, he was photographed carrying Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World as he walked across the tarmac at an airport in Bozeman, Montana. The book outlines America’s declining influence in international politics – was he formulating policies for dealing with rising powers like China, India and Brazil?
In October 2008, the New York Times asked Obama to provide a list of books and writers that were significant to him. Here goes – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, James Baldwin, W. E. B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk, Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, Robert Caro’s Power Broker, Studs Terkel’s Working, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments, and also Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men – a novel about a corrupt Southern governor (Rod Blagojevich anyone?). And then there were his theology and philosophy influences - Friedrich Nietzsche, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls as key influences (incidentally, John McCain also named For Whom The Bell Tolls as his favourite read). Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, E.L. Doctorow and Philip Roth have also cropped up in interviews. Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch – a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Martin Luther King – is another favourite. With two young daughters - Malia and Sasha - to entertain, he’s read all seven of the Harry Potter books.
Once the votes were cast and he was Washington-bound, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin became the Barack book of the moment. It describes how Abraham Lincoln brought his political enemies into his cabinet in order to harness their skills. A student of Honest Abe, Barack mentioned the book several times in interviews.Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan – clearly getting in some last-minute homework before beginning the process of naming his cabinet. In the same month, he was spotted carrying a copy of Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems 1948-1984. Poet Elizabeth Alexander, a close friend, read at his inauguration.
Apparently, Obama’s childhood was not particularly bookish but his love of literature was sparked at Occidental College in California where he admitted to reading “tons of books”. In December 1997, he even reviewed a book for the Chicago Tribune – William Ayers' A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of the Juvenile Court.
What next? He won’t have time to write another book until his presidency is over. Popping into a bookstore to pick up a new read is out of the question – his people will do that. Security briefing documents are now his must-read of the day rather than Morrison or another Lincoln biography. If George W. Bush can tick off 95 books in 2006, a year of unending international turmoil, then Barack Obama can surely read his way through the next four years.
And he's off to a good start - Obama announced his plans to unwind with good books during a summer 2009 trip to Martha's Vineyard with Michelle and the girls. The president's reading list includes five books: The Way Home by George Pelecanos, Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman, Lush Life by Richard Price, Plainsong by Kent Haruf and John Adams by David McCullough.