Obama's essential reads for challenging times

Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Lincoln, Morrison—and Gone Girl

When former President Barack Obama faced difficult moments, he turned to books for inspiration and comfort.

Obama disclosed some of his favorite reads to the New York Times' chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, and the editorial staff of Wired. Here are a few of his recommendations:

Speeches and collected works by Abraham Lincoln

Obama told Kakutani he would put Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address "up against any piece of American writing." Wired recommends looking for a compilation, like The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch

The book covers the early years of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s career and the civil rights movement.

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

Obama told Kakutani this classic read explains that overcoming hardships is "not just pain, [but also] joy and glory and mystery."

 A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipaul

This is the book Obama turns to when he needs to "resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world," he told Kakutani.

Gilead, or any title by Marilynne Robinson

Of Robinson's works, Obama told Kakutani, "I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day." Obama also revealed that he and Robinson are "sort of pen pals."

Shakespeare's tragedies

Obama studied Shakespeare in college, and found his writings to be "foundational... in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings."

More favorites

Other books on Obama's reading list—which spans the classic and the contemporary—include:

  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo;
  • The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert A. Caro;
  • The Life and Times of an American: Andy Grove, by Richard S. Tedlow;
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert;
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari;
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead;
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman;
  • Any title by Junot Diaz or Jhumpa Lahiri;
  • The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin;
  • In Dubious Battle, by John Steinbeck;
  • The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin;
  • Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff; and
  • Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.

(Locke, Wired, 10/21/16; New York Times, 1/18).

Need more recommendations? See the finalists for the 2016 National Book Awards


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