The President Who Loved Literature

Barack Obama in Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, Iowa


Not the least of the things I will miss about Barack Obama will be his literary reflections. Since I believe, along with Jonathan Chait, that Obama has been one of America’s greatest presidents, it’s nice to think that we can give literature some of the credit for that. Even if you think, as some of my conservative readers do, that Obama’s presidency has been a disaster, you must admit that he has handled the office with class. So maybe literature at least encourages good behavior, even if Obama also pushed policies that you don’t like.

Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for The New York Times, recently interviewed the president about his favorite books. His answers confirm his thoughtfulness and his depth.

Some of the titles I have not seen him mention before. For instance, talking about certain books that he has recommended to Malia, he is concerned that tastes have changed so that she might not encounter them in college. The books are

–Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead;
–Garcia Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude;
–Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
–Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Warrior Woman

All four of the novels show large historical forces at work: World War II, colonialism, leftist politics and the rise of feminism, immigration and the clash of cultures. I suspect that Woman Warrior (which includes the story of Mulan) would resonate most with Malia. At one time Kingston’s book was the most commonly taught novel on college campuses.

Obama noted that Malia has been drawn to one book that he didn’t recommend.She sounds like her father’s daughter:

A Moveable Feast. I hadn’t included that, and she was just captivated by the idea that Hemingway described his goal of writing one true thing every day.

Obama discussed how reading became important to him when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University:

I was hermetic — it really is true. I had one plate, one towel, and I’d buy clothes from thrift shops. And I was very intense, and sort of humorless. But [reading fiction] reintroduced me to the power of words as 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.

The president also talked about literature he is not drawn to. Mentioning that he once wrote short stories, he noted that they were not Jack Kerouac-style, open-road, self-discovery dramas:

And so a bunch of the short stories I wrote had to do with that sense, that atmosphere. One story is about an old black pastor who seems to be about to lose his church, his lease is running out and he’s got this loyal woman deacon who is trying to buck him up. Another is about an elderly couple — a white couple in L.A., — and he’s like in advertising, wrote jingles. And he’s just retired and has gotten cranky. And his wife is trying to convince him that his life is not over.

So when I think back on what’s interesting to me, there is not a lot of Jack Kerouac, open-road, young kid on the make discovering stuff. It’s more melancholy and reflective.

Social realism, in other words, rather than expressive fiction.

Novels, Obama said, have been very important in helping him maintain his bearings over the past eight years:

But this is part of why it was important to pick up the occasional novel during the presidency, because most of my reading every day was briefing books and memos and proposals. And so working that very analytical side of the brain all the time sometimes meant you lost track of not just the poetry of fiction, but also the depth of fiction.

Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country.

For example:

[T]he last novel I read was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. And the reminder of the ways in which the pain of slavery transmits itself across generations, not just in overt ways, but how it changes minds and hearts.

The interviewer brought up Obama’s mention of Atticus Finch in his farewell address, which led to this interchange:

It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap —

It bridges them. I struck up a friendship with [the novelist] Marilynne Robinson, who has become a good friend. And we’ve become sort of pen pals. I started reading her in Iowa, where Gilead and some of her best novels are set. And I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them — the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to — it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas and ended up journeying all the way to Hawaii, but whose foundation had been set in a very similar setting.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

Later in the interview Obama returns to this theme of using fiction to learn other perspectives, which philosopher Martha Nussbaum says is one of literature’s greatest gifts:

And perspective is exactly what is wanted. At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president, I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.

Then, appearing to talk about escapist fiction, Obama mentioned times when

I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

The works he mentions in this context, however, are not cheap spy novels but well crafted genre fiction, such as:

Liu Cixin’s Hugo Award winning sci-fi novel The Three Body Problem
Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl
Lauren Goff’s similarly structured domestic tour-de-force Fates and Furies

Kakutani astutely points out to Obama that Flynn and Goff’s books both feature wildly different accounts of the same reality. The reader is forced to be skeptical of the first person narrators, stepping into each character’s shoes to figure out the truth.

Obama talked about the importance of Shakespeare and, while it doesn’t sound like he ever warmed to The Tempest, the tragedies hit home. This isn’t surprising given his other reading choices. As always with Obama, he is interested in seeing how people’s lives are caught up in the movement of large forces. Earnest as Obama is, it makes sense that Prospero’s game playing would not appeal to him:

I would say Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone. Like most teenagers in high school, when we were assigned, I don’t know, The Tempest or something, I thought, “My God, this is boring.” And I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.

I’ve written before about Obama’s love for Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and it’s interesting that he mentions “going through hardship” when he discusses it. The hardship in the novel isn’t that acute: Milkman has been living an aimless middle class life (just as Obama once experimented with drugs) but then goes on a roots quest (as Obama went in search of his Kenyan father). He ultimately finds a greater purpose in his life, just as Obama did with community organizing:

[Literature] gives me a sense of perspective. I think Toni Morrison’s writings — particularly Song of Solomon is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it’s not just pain, but there’s joy and glory and mystery.

Then there are authors that Obama reads even though he does not agree with them politically. For instance, he describes Trinidadian author V. S. Naipaul as someone he uses as a foil. Given his faith in the American voter, expressed especially in his 2008 campaign and his farewell address, he feels challenged by Naipaul’s dismissal of weak people:

I think that there are writers who I don’t necessarily agree with in terms of their politics, but whose writings are sort of a baseline for how to think about certain things — V. S. Naipaul, for example. His A Bend in the River, which starts with the line, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” And I always think about that line, and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.

So in that sense, I’m using writing like that as a foil or something to debate against.

Finally, there are those authors who capture the immigrant and the outsider experiences, thereby helping establish America’s its special identity and mission:

I know you like Junot Díaz’s and Jhumpa Lahiri’s books, and they speak to immigration or the American Dream.

I think Lahiri’s books, I think Díaz’s books, do speak to a very particular contemporary immigration experience. But also this combination of — that I think is universal — longing for this better place, but also feeling displaced and looking backwards at the same time. I think in that sense, their novels are directly connected to a lot of American literature.

Some of the great books by Jewish authors like Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, they are steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up — what you’re willing to give up and what you’re not willing to give up. So that particular aspect of American fiction I think is still of great relevance today.

Because of the novel’s ability to speak to our deepest issues, Obama is not worried that it will be replaced by social media:

Look, I don’t worry about the survival of the novel. We’re a storytelling species.

I think that what one of the jobs of political leaders going forward is, is to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people. And America is unique in having to stitch together all these disparate elements — we’re not one race, we’re not one tribe, folks didn’t all arrive here at the same time.

What holds us together is an idea, and it’s a story about who we are and what’s important to us. And I want to make sure that we continue that.

Get ready for four years of a president who doesn’t read.

This entry was posted in Bellow (Saul), Cixin (Liu), Diaz (Junot), Flynn (Gillian), Goff (Lauren), Hemingway (Ernest), Kerouac (Jack), Kerouac (Jack), Kingston (Maxine Hong), Lahiri (Jhumpa), Lee (Harper), Lessing (Doris), Mailer (Norman), Marquez (Gabriel Garcia), Morrison (Toni), Naipaul (V.S.), Robinson (Marilynne), Roth (Philip K.), Shakespeare (William), Whitehead (Colson) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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