The NAB Blog

Leading and Reading: Favourite Presidential Books

By Anthony Anderson

1 February 2017

Golden NotebookShortly before leaving office a list of books which helped Barack Obama over his eight years in the White House was made public. The list included Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. In addition, books that Obama had chosen to share with his daughters include the iconic feminist work by Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook.

Over his eight years in office the President had regularly published lists of favourite titles including classics such as Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness. Obama commented that books gave him a way to ‘get out of my own head’ and to better ‘imagine what’s going on in the lives of people’.

While this kind of insight is interesting, particularly to those of us who work in publishing, how much does it tell us about a person, either as a national leader or human being? Obama’s choices seem intelligent and thoughtful, while other Presidents seem to have barely ever picked up a book. For those of us with a love of literature, we may pour scorn on the latter, but it is hard to argue that this has much of an impact on their statesmanship… though one feels there must be an impact on their view of the world and humanity.

Some years ago Buzzfeed published an article on the favourite books of the first 44 US Presidents. What is immediately clear – and perhaps unsurprising – is that earlier presidents often read extensively… this was in an age before television, films and audiobooks. And golf was less popular then!

John Adams, a prolific reader, habitually made written notes in the books as he read (and thought about) them – the most annotated volume in his 3,000-volume personal library is Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Historical and Oral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was an even more avid reader than Adams and had a library, now housed in the Library of Congress, more than twice the size of his predecessor’s.

As for the 45th and current President there is not much indication that he is a reader

However, perhaps more revealing are the favourites of those Presidents who were not well read. ‘Old Hickory’ Andrew Jackson has been criticised for being ‘unread, but was said to have treasured Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. Abraham Lincoln’s fondness for Shakespeare is well documented and he appears to have valued Macbeth as the finest of the Bard’s output.

Andrew Garfield’s presidency was short-lived and there had been few books in the Garfield household while he was growing up. However, his introduction to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe made such a strong impact that he re-read it several times, creating within him an appetite for further reading.

The 23rd president Benjamin Harrison was a fan of Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. Perhaps there was something in their swashbuckling nature that resonated with the former soldier. Theodore Roosevelt was an insatiable reader (he was said to read two or three books each night) and famously opined that there were two books that every boy should read: Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Thomas Aldrich’s Story of a Bad Boy… his contention being that the reader would learn how to tolerate bullying ‘manfully’ and without immediate retaliation.

Herbert Hoover’s difficult upbringing (he was an orphan) probably played a large part in his choice of David Copperfield as his favourite book. Franklin Roosevelt’s love of Rudyard Kipling and, in particular, of the poem If, has been held as evidence of his imperialism. Besides the Bible, the only book listed by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library Museum among his favourite books is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Kennedy had a passion for James Bond, both the books and the first films, while Nixon admitted, in his farewell speech to White House staff that ‘I am not educated, but I do read books’ and, in his memoir, said he had read several of the novels of Leo Tolstoy in his youth.

War & Peace - Volume I (unabridged)The link between President and novelist has seldom been as strong as it was between Tom Clancy and Ronald Reagan who, on publication of The Hunt for Red October, described it as ‘unputdownable’, which did its sales no harm at all.

George H.W. Bush revealed in a 1995 interview that he had been obliged to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace in school: ‘ It was an inspiring treatise. I read it twice. It taught me a lot about life.’ Less is known about the reading habits of his son, George W., except that he supposedly reads the Bible once each year.

Symptomatic of a more media-savvy age, Bill Clinton compiled a few different lists of his favourite books, but the one title to appear consistently was The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
At a time when there are suspicions of undue intervention in Presidential election campaigns, one interesting footnote is The Life of Franklin Pierce by Nathanial Hawthorne, a book published about the relatively obscure Presidential candidate just before the election of 1852, when the author was at the height of his popularity (the two had been contemporaries at Bowdoin College). The book is thought to have had a decisive influence on the outcome of the election, and as a result Hawthorne was rewarded with a lucrative diplomatic post in the United Kingdom. Many consider Pierce to be one of the worst American presidents in history – and Hawthorne’s career as a diplomat didn’t extend beyond his friend’s term of office.

As for the 45th and current President there is not much indication that he is a reader, and he has cited a lack of time as the main reason (tweets have a maximum of 140 characters and are therefore quick to compose and send). However, there has been a range of books published about him with, one suspects, many more to come, although prospective biographers need to beware that some past writers on the subject have been sued for their trouble.

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