Most of us have heard of the “shelfie” (in case you haven’t, it is when a social media influencer posts a photograph of their bookshelf to demonstrate how well-read or woke or intellectual he or she, the poster, is.), but the Presidential Reading List takes the form of the shelfie to a new level. Every year, the 44th President shares his favourite reads from the past year. “While each of us has plenty that keeps us busy – work and family life, social and volunteer commitments – outlets like literature and art can enhance our day-to-day experiences,” he has said. “They’re the fabric that helps make up a life.”
Of course, Barack Obama’s carefully curated selection might reflect the astuteness of his advisers as much as it does his personal taste. Did anyone believe that Gordon Brown loved the rock band Artic Monkeys, or that George Osborne so admired NWA’s 1989 debut Straight Otta Compton that he hotfooted it to their next gig? Even David Cameron’s aggressively bland Desert Island Discs selection had the inoffensive chime of committee approval.
“At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better.” – Barack Obama
But Obama’s choices do have the ring of truth about them. He is known to be a voracious reader, and a discerning one: “I confess to wincing every so often at a poorly chosen word, a mangled sentence, an expression of emotion that seems indulgent or overly practiced,” he has said. And: “the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels.” And: “At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better. It’s an enormous force for good.” Even for such a great rhetorician as Obama, these are powerful and heartfelt statements.
Plus, it’s a tradition he has maintained since he stopped being President. No one is making him publish his lists of top reads: it’s not going to win him any votes. He has form. In the past, he has spoken about being shaped by the books he devoured as a young man, saying “when I wasn’t working, the weekends would usually find me alone in an empty apartment, making do with the company of books”. He loves John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville and Graham Greene, Toni Morrison and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Sure, it probably boosts his self-esteem, the image of the erudite, civilised, curious man. Particularly compared to Trump who has declared he “doesn’t have time to read” (must be all that Tweeting) and whose 2018 book recommendations included such titles as The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography; Liars, Leakers and Liberals; The Case for Trump; and The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hilary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump. The Atlantic magazine was actually so concerned over Trump’s inability to concentrate on the written word that they commissioned a major article on it. Some have even gone so far as to question whether Trump is more than semi-literate.
His books cover politics and prison, Colonialism and capitalism, sex and the Super Bowl. – Violet Hudson
Obama’s choices, in comparison, are sober and grown-up, with a big fat modern dollop of diversity. Of his most recent 19 book choices, ten were by women and eight by African- or Asian- Americans. I couldn’t find statistics for the proportion of books written by these groups in 2019, but I’d bet you a newly minted $100 note that it’s less than 53% and 42% respectively. The subject matter is on-message, too: his books cover politics and prison, Colonialism and capitalism, sex and the Super Bowl. I believe him – and, what’s more, I’ll happily take his tips.
Obama’s latest book recommendations in full:
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer
How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington
Normal People by Sally Rooney
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
Solitary by Albert Woodfox
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
Trick Mirror: Reflections of Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
We Live in Water: Stories by Jess Walter
A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney’s Story from the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule by Jim Rooney
The Sixth Man by Andre Iguodala
Violet Hudson is a freelance journalist. She contributes to Tatler, the Spectator, Standpoint and the Catholic Herald.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.