Let me stipulate that Barack Obama’s avid book-reading did not necessarily make him a better president (or a worse president, for that matter). Nor does the fact that Donald Trump doesn’t seem to read many books (although he has published several ghost-written books) necessarily mean that he will be a bad president. (There are plenty of other reasons to expect that.)
That said, The New York Times’s chief book critic Michiko Kakutani conducted an interview with Obama about his reading (and writing) preferences. Among the revelations:
• He gave his daughter Malia, a college freshman, a Kindle with Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook” and Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior.”
The only one of those which I have read is “The Naked and the Dead,” which may be the best novel to come out of World War II. I once tried to read the Marquez book but couldn’t get past the first couple of pages.
• When he was working as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama wrote short stories, mostly about old people.
• Other books Obama has liked are Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” Liu Cixin’s science fiction series “The Three-Body Problem,” Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies,” Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and V. S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River.”
I’ll admit to having read none of them.
• He said reading Shakespeare’s tragedies was “foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.”
• I agree with him that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is as good as any piece of American writing.
• It doesn’t surprise me at all that he said this: “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.”
Obama was far from a perfect president. He came into office at a truly perilous time for the US and the world, and helped avert economic catastrophe. He did some good things and he made some serious mistakes (mostly of omission). A case can be made that his failures in policy and party-building led to the success of Donald Trump. But it was nice to have an erudite, articulate, essentially decent person in the Oval Office. I think we will miss that pretty soon.
What books do you wish Donald Trump would have the interest and attention span to read (beside the obvious)?
Update: Obama managing to ignore the Russian state “journalist” who shouted at him during his last press conference speaks well of him.