Books

These are the books Barack Obama says everyone should read this year

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Sam Diss
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You tell everyone you’d like to read some more but just don’t have the time. 

“I’d love to read some more,” you tell your friend over a pint in the pub, “but really, I just don’t have the time.”

You know who genuinely doesn’t have the time? Or didn’t at least. Someone who has big fish to fry – fish so big you wouldn’t even know where to begin frying them, let alone for how long or with what oil – and yet still manages to shove books into their brain, fiction and non, with the voracity of a bespectacled, becardigan’d heartthrob from a Oxbridge rom-com. Barack Hussein Obama is into his books and gets plenty of time in for them. What’s your excuse?

Obama reading Where The Wild Things Are to kids on the White House lawn last Easter.

Sitting down for an chinwag with The New York Times book critic, Michiko Kakutani, Obama – who has written sixteen books himself, by the way – has called upon people to open their minds and understand the importance of great literature (and to read a bit more ‘n’ all). 

“I loved reading when I was a kid,” the departing President told Kakutani, “partly because I was traveling so much, and there were times where I’d be displaced, I’d be the outsider. When I first moved to Indonesia, I’m this big, dark-skinned kid that kind of stood out. And then when I moved back from Indonesia to Hawaii, I had the manners and habits probably of an Indonesian kid.”

“And so the idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing to me. And then I became a teenager and wasn’t reading that much other than what was assigned in school, and playing basketball and chasing girls, and imbibing things that weren’t very healthy.”

“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.” 

“Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”

Here’s a few of Obama’s recommendations, featuring – most interesting (and crucially) plenty of women authors: 

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

A Hugo Award-winning apocalyptic sci-fi epic, Obama said “The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty — not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade!”

The Underground Railroad by Colton Whitehead

Described by Obama as a “reminder of the ways in which the pain of slavery transmits itself across generations, not just in overt ways, but how it changes minds and hearts.”

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Obama: “I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them — the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to — it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas and ended up journeying all the way to Hawaii, but whose foundation had been set in a very similar setting.”

Gone Girl by Gillian Fylnn

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul

Phew. That’s loads. But if you want more book reccs, try Obama’s Summer Reading list from last summer: 

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (that’s two for Whitehead – it is very good, tbf)

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (yes, that one)

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

And, ICYMI, here's what made the cut the year before:

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (which is incredible)

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

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Sam Diss

ShortList senior writer Sam enjoys making up words to annoy editors, writing features about sports, music, weird things, and cool people, and listening to Mark Morrison's 'Return Of The Mack'. He's also a fairly capable centreback. Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamDiss

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