Barack Obama Shares a List of Enlightening Books Worth Reading

Pho­to by Pete Souza via

What­ev­er his­to­ri­ans have to say about his polit­i­cal lega­cy, Barack Oba­ma will be remem­bered as charm­ing, diplo­mat­ic, thought­ful, and very well-read. He honed these per­son­al qual­i­ties not only as a politi­cian but as a schol­ar, writer, and teacher, roles that require intel­lec­tu­al curios­i­ty and open­ness to oth­er points of view. The for­mer pres­i­dent was some­thing of a dream come true for teach­ers and librar­i­ans, who could point to him as a shin­ing exam­ple of a world leader who loves to read, talk about books, and share books with oth­ers. All kinds of books: from nov­els and poet­ry to biog­ra­phy, phi­los­o­phy, soci­ol­o­gy, and polit­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic non­fic­tion; books for chil­dren and books for young adults.

It is refresh­ing to look back at his tenure as a reli­able rec­om­mender of qual­i­ty books dur­ing his eight years in office. (See every book he rec­om­mend­ed dur­ing his two terms here.) Read­ing gave him the abil­i­ty to “slow down and get per­spec­tive,” he told Michiko Kaku­tani last year. He hoped to use his office, he said, “to widen the audi­ence for good books. At a time when so much of our pol­i­tics is try­ing to man­age this clash of cul­tures brought about by glob­al­iza­tion and tech­nol­o­gy and migra­tion, the role of sto­ries to unify—as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize—is more impor­tant than ever.”

While many peo­ple have been hop­ing he would weigh in on deeply dis­turb­ing cur­rent events, he “has been rel­a­tive­ly qui­et on social media of late,” notes Thu-Huong Ha at Quartz. But he has con­tin­ued to use his plat­form to rec­om­mend good books, sug­gest­ing that the per­spec­tives we gain from read­ing are as crit­i­cal as ever. “In a Face­book post pub­lished on Sat­ur­day, Oba­ma rec­om­mend­ed some of the non­fic­tion he’s read recent­ly, focused on gov­ern­ment, inequal­i­ty, and his­to­ry, with one book that address­es immi­gra­tion. Togeth­er the rec­om­men­da­tions are an intel­lec­tu­al anti­dote to the cur­rent US pres­i­dent, who eschews read­ing,” says Ha.

The list below includes Obama’s brief com­men­tary on each book and arti­cle.

Futureface: A Fam­i­ly Mys­tery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belong­ing, by Alex Wag­n­er (2018)

Jour­nal­ist Alex Wag­n­er inves­ti­gates a poten­tial new twist in her family’s his­to­ry. “What she came up with,” Oba­ma writes, “is a thought­ful, beau­ti­ful med­i­ta­tion on what makes us who we are—the search for har­mo­ny between our own indi­vid­ual iden­ti­ties and the val­ues and ideals that bind us togeth­er as Amer­i­cans.”

The New Geog­ra­phy of Jobs, by Enri­co Moret­ti (2012)

Econ­o­mist Enri­co Moret­ti argues that there are three Amer­i­c­as: brain-hub cities like Austin and Boston; cities once dom­i­nat­ed by tra­di­tion­al man­u­fac­tur­ing; and the cities in between. “Still a time­ly and smart dis­cus­sion of how dif­fer­ent cities and regions have made a chang­ing econ­o­my work for them,” writes Oba­ma, “and how pol­i­cy­mak­ers can learn from that to lift the cir­cum­stances of work­ing Amer­i­cans every­where.”

Why Lib­er­al­ism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen (2018)

Polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Patrick J. Deneen argues that lib­er­al­ism is not the result of the nat­ur­al state of pol­i­tics and lays out the ideology’s inher­ent con­tra­dic­tions. “In a time of grow­ing inequal­i­ty, accel­er­at­ing change, and increas­ing dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic order we’ve known for the past few cen­turies,” says the for­mer pres­i­dent, “I found this book thought-pro­vok­ing.”

“The 9.9 Per­cent Is the New Amer­i­can Aris­toc­ra­cy,” by Matthew Stew­art (June 2018)

In The Atlantic, Matthew Stew­art, author of The Man­age­ment Myth, defines a “cog­ni­tive elite,” a “9.9%” of Amer­i­cans who val­ue mer­i­toc­ra­cy and, he argues, are com­plic­it in the ero­sion of democ­ra­cy. “Anoth­er thought-pro­vok­ing analy­sis, this one about how eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty in Amer­i­ca isn’t just grow­ing, but self-rein­forc­ing,” says Oba­ma.

In the Shad­ow of Stat­ues: A White South­ern­er Con­fronts His­to­ry, by Mitch Lan­drieu (2018)

Mitch Lan­drieu, the for­mer may­or of New Orleans, Louisiana, writes in his mem­oir of the per­son­al his­to­ry and reck­on­ing with race that led him to take down four Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues in 2017. “It’s an ulti­mate­ly opti­mistic take from some­one who believes the South will rise again not by reassert­ing the past, but by tran­scend­ing it,” writes Oba­ma.

“Truth Decay: An Ini­tial Explo­ration of the Dimin­ish­ing Role of Facts and Analy­sis in Amer­i­can Pub­lic Life,” by Jen­nifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, RAND Cor­po­ra­tion (2018)

This report for the non­prof­it RAND Cor­po­ra­tion, avail­able as a free ebook, attempts to study the ero­sion of fact-based pol­i­cy mak­ing and dis­course in the US. “A look at how a selec­tive sort­ing of facts and evi­dence isn’t just dis­hon­est, but self-defeat­ing,” says Oba­ma.

While the for­mer pres­i­dent no longer has the pow­er to sway pol­i­cy, he can still inspire mil­lions of peo­ple to read—essential for stay­ing bal­anced, informed, and reflec­tive in our per­ilous times.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pres. Oba­ma Releas­es a Free Playlist of 40 Songs for a Sum­mer Day (Plus 6 Books on His Sum­mer Read­ing List)

The 5 Books on Pres­i­dent Obama’s 2016 Sum­mer Read­ing List

The Oba­ma “Hope” Poster & The New Copy­right Con­tro­ver­sy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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