All the Presidents Books – Barack Obama

by Rachel Baker on January 20, 2009

I think people are fascinated by what our leaders read, and most of us have heard the quips about how Bush doesn’t read, which is a misconception.  Apparently Bush read something like 90 books in 2006 and 51 in 2007 (according to the Abe Books link below).  I think in the future at some point, I’ll be interested in what 140 books Bush read, but for now, I’m interested in the books that have influenced our 44th President.

I thought since it was Inauguration Day, it might be a good day to coalesce some of the articles I found discussing what Barack Obama has read.  From what I could gather, President Obama was not a very bookish person until he went to college.  He’s not just a reader though.  He, as I’m sure we are all aware, a writer.  But did you know he wrote poetry  too? (My apologies – the link takes you to a free subscription page, unfortunately. Again, its free and these two poems are worth a few newsy emails in your inbox) 

Here are a few links I found and some excerpts from articles I found yesterday.  The most interesting, in my humble opinion, is the link from Salon.  Its a three page article. I hope you take the time to read all three pages.  Frankly, its the most indepth of them all.

excerpts from LA TIMES BLOG

“Obama, in a just-published interview with Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner, names “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway, as one of the three books that have inspired him.  The two others — Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and, in an answer that deftly expanded the scope of the question, the tragedies of William Shakespeare.”

“Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”
“About his favorite book and the author, Obama said: “It was a biography of Lincoln. And she talks about Lincoln’s capacity to bring opponents of his and people who have run against him in his cabinet. And he was confident enough to be willing to have these dissenting voices and confident enough to listen to the American people and push them outside of their comfort zone. And I think that part of what I want to do as president is push Americans a little bit outside of their comfort zone. It’s a remarkable study in leadership.”

excerpts from

“Among the authors he favored during his years of intensive reading were Herman Melville, Toni Morrison and E.L. Doctorow (cited as his favorite before he switched to Shakespeare). He has also mentioned Philip Roth, whose struggles to shrug off the strictures of Jewish American community leaders must have resonated with the young activist.”

“Although Obama has mentioned Ralph Ellison only in passing, it’s difficult not to see “Dreams From My Father” as a variation on Ellison’s 1952 modernist classic, “Invisible Man.”

“Obama never mentions Saul Alinsky by name, he has read “Rules for Radicals,” according to his campaign; it would be hard to find any thoughtful community organizer who hasn’t.  Alinsky, a Chicago native, famously organized the impoverished Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s and trained several generations of organizers, including César Chávez, before publishing “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals” in 1971.”

“Obama himself went through a period of “devouring” the work of Nietzsche while living in New York.”

“Obama has in turn described Niebuhr (to New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks) as “one of my favorite philosophers.”

“the book Obama has most recently cited as a major influence, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” it’s not the Lincoln of popular American myth — the secular saint and martyr — we find praised there. It’s Lincoln the wily politician, who was not above carefully hedging his public positions and who prided himself on cajoling his opponents to his side.”

excerpts from Abe Books

“He (Obama) 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…”

“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’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.”

“Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch – a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Martin Luther King – is another favorite. With two young daughters – Malia and Sasha – to entertain, he’s read all seven of the Harry Potter books.”

“Later in November, he left his Chicago home carrying a hardcover copy of Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan. In the same month, he was spotted carrying a copy of Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems 1948-1984. Poet Elizabeth Alexander, a close friend, is reading at his inauguration.”

“In the same month, he was spotted carrying a copy of Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems 1948-1984. Poet Elizabeth Alexander, a close friend, is reading at his inauguration.”

Of everything here, I’m curious about his enjoyment of “Shakespeare Tragedies” (probably because I don’t fully remember them indepth and it was always a chore to read them); and I am thrilled by his enjoyment of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. I’m not sure I remember “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (one of those ‘I read it in high school’ books); and I think “Moby Dick” is pretty interesting.   I suspect if we all took the time to add Obama’s favorite books to our book stacks, we may truly begin to understand what will be driving this man for the next four years (and maybe beyond).

The next thing I want to know is what books does Michelle Obama consider to be her favorite, and what books have inspired and influenced her over the course of her life?  And let’s not leave out Malia and Sasha – what are their favorite books?  I’ll have to figure these out and get back to you…

I’m curious, what books helped shape your understanding of the world around you and how you choose to live your life?  What book(s) do you remember being impactful to you at a specific time in your life?

The picture used at the top of this article source: AP Photo/Obama Presidential Campaign; and is Barack Obama at Harvard Law School, holding a copy of the Harvard Law Review, of which he was the first black president (undated).

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