Barack Obama’s Literature to Understand America
Barack Obama has never been shy about sharing his opinions on books, music, pop culture and more. And now, with his newly released best-selling memoir A Promised Land, the former president is in no way ready to slow down on his book recommendations. On Tuesday, December 8, The New York Times published an interview with Barack Obama by Michiko Kakutani. Obama reflects on his reading life and the literature that helped him better understand America:
The literature on Obama’s list are:
- Poetry by Walt Whitman
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
- “Just about anything by Hemingway”
- Autobiographies of Frederick Douglas
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
- Letter From Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King
- Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
Upon first glance, there are a couple of glaring issues with this list. For a list of books and literature that’s meant to help someone new to America understand our country, all of these titles are pretty old. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is the most recently published book on this list, and that book came out in 1977.
Speaking of Toni Morrison, she’s also the only woman on this list. All other authors on Obama’s list are cisgender men. Additionally, this list has a lack of representation from many important American minority groups. For instance, there are no Indigenous authors represented. No queer stories are included. No contemporary immigrant stories. Many portions of the American story are left out.
But I want to give Obama the benefit of the doubt here. In the full New York Times article, it seems that these books come from a specific time in Obama’s reading life. A time where he was attempting to, as he puts it, become a more “serious person”:
He puts “serious person” in quotes, he explains, “because I was very somber about this whole process and basically became a little bit of a recluse for a couple of years, and just was going to classes, wandering the city, mostly by myself, and reading and writing in my journals. And just trying to figure out what did I believe, and how should I think about my life.”
Obama is more well-read than this list from The New York Times would suggest. Based on previous Obama book lists, here are some more contemporary titles that should be added to this list:
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- There, There by Tommy Orage
- Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Obviously, while more contemporary, this is still not a list that is fully representative of our country or the problems contemporary America faces.
Barack Obama is likely reading new books from diverse voices all the time. Books that help him reflect on this ever-changing country. Yes, the fact that this is the list of books that was chosen to represent Obama’s opinions of America is disappointing. But considering Obama shares his favorite books at the end of every year, let’s hope some less disappointing book recommendations are in our future.