Over his two terms in office, Barack Obama proved himself to be a serious, surprising and engaged reader. When not leader of the free world, he seemed to enjoy nothing more than a good book. And, like a friend who can't stop raving about the novel they read on vacation, Obama liked to tell others about good books, too.
In interviews and his annual reading lists, he trumpeted the work of new and established writers, proving himself to be catholic in his tastes – memoirs and history, literary fiction and thrillers.
Last week, as his time in office drew to a close, he lunched with writers Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz and Barbara Kingsolver, inducing jealousy from English lit majors across the country. Looking back on his reading habits over the past eight years provides a pretty accurate snapshot of contemporary literature; it was as if he found time to read The New York Review of Books (with whom he sat down for a lengthy interview in 2015).
Globe Books editor Mark Medley asked a few of the writers whose work Obama read in office to reflect on the 44th President of the United States and how it felt when he championed their work.
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies
It was astonishing that the President of the United States would read my book; in retrospect it was not, however, astonishing that President Barack Obama would read and respond to fiction. He has proved himself to be one of the most empathetic, thoughtful, intelligent and kind humans ever to be in public office in my country, and I think we are all grateful that he was able to maintain his humanity during his eight-year trial through the reading of fiction, which is the best tool that I, too, know for keeping alive an active interest in another person's soul. That the President read my book was one shocking event – and, most likely, Obama will be the last U.S. president to read anything at all in office – but that this particular man, who is such a brilliant writer and orator himself, read it and responded to it, was what made me cry with joy. We will miss him enormously.
William Finnegan, author of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
I got turned on to Obama by a battered secondhand paperback of Dreams from My Father, which was then out of print. The author was an obscure Illinois state senator – this was early 2004 – and I was flabbergasted that a politician could write so fluently, even beautifully. I knew some of the settings in his memoir – we had both lived in Honolulu and New York, spent time in Indonesia, tried to write about East Africa – and so I knew that he had gotten these difficult places exactly right. Obama was then making a run for the U.S. Senate. I went to Illinois and shadowed him for a week, interviewing friends, colleagues, political foes, Michelle. He was clearly a major political talent, but he kept telling me, "I'd rather be doing what you're doing. Listening, watching, taking notes." I believed him. He's an astute observer, interested in all kinds of people and a natural-born writer. But he had put himself in the spotlight, which was about to get a great deal brighter. Offstage, he could talk books, ideas, history, with fluency and feeling. That wasn't a surprise – he was a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. But he wasn't stuffy. He was funny, self-deprecating, idealistic, full of subtle insights. The profile of him I wrote for The New Yorker was … positive. A puff piece, my editor said. Couldn't I find some dirt on this guy? I tried. I couldn't. We ran the puff piece. Later, as Obama's star kept rising, that editor wrote a bestselling biography of the newly elected President. Now Obama, anodized and grey, can get back to writing. Back to lurking, listening, taking notes. I am pretty sure he's got another great memoir in him. I look forward to whatever he comes up with.
Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
When newspapers report that the President has bought your book, friends begin to suspect that perhaps you are not, in fact, just artfully underemployed. It helps sales a wee bit, which was convenient in my case, because Obama bought Age of Ambition in November, 2014, shortly before I tapped my bank account for the holidays. Some overinterpret the signal: Since my book is about China, the state news agency in Beijing solemnly reported Obama's purchase and some political analysts in China scoured the book in search of clues to the President's thinking. (I can assure them there is none.) Most of all, it was simply an honour to be read by a fellow author whom I admire. His belief in the sheer magic of the word and his gifts for summoning them at the crucial moments will outlast his presidency. All of us who read him, or were read by him, are better for it.