Leading by reading: Presidents and books

Leading by reading: Presidents and books

“Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.”
–Arthur C. Clarke

In the USA, today is “Presidents’ Day”. I would guess most kids today see it as a celebration of all of our Presidents, although that’s certainly a recent interpretation. There had been separate holidays for Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday, and they used to be celebrated on their actual birthdays. Since my birthday happens to be the same as Lincoln’s (February 12th), that meant that as a kid, I got my birthday off from school…which meant I could have well-attended parties. 😉 I felt a little cheated when they combined things into one day…and also put it on a specific Monday (the third), which happens to mean that it doesn’t fall on any President’s actual birthday, I believe.

Actually, it’s all a lot more complicated than that. Officially, nationally, it is still Washington’s birthday, and then different states do different things. However, I think it’s reasonable to think of it as Presidents’ Day….and it gives me more latitude for the post. 😉

Lots of Presidents have written books, but what I’m concerned with here is the books they read…or at least, that they appear to read. 🙂 Some Presidents have had public statements made about what they read, or what books they buy…in other cases, it’s just come out from what they have said.

My first thought is of Abraham Lincoln walking three miles (and there probably weren’t sidewalks and streetlights!) to borrow a book from the library..but I actually don’t even know if that’s true! I took a look online and saw it asserted, but not in a way that seemed anything but anecdotal. However, I have found many references to books Lincoln read…and found comments the 16th President reportedly made about some of them.

Then, I found this scholarly work by Robert Bray, which analyzes all of the reported Lincoln books and assigns a probability that the President actually had them…with the highest level being Lincoln referring to them.

What Abraham Lincoln Read— An Evaluative and Annotated List

Looking at the list of those (not counting individual poems, and skipping textbooks), they include:

  • The Bible
  • Speeches by Henry Clay
  • Journal and Debates of the Federal Constitution by Jonathan Elliott
  • History of Illinois by Thomas Ford
  • The poet FitzGreene Halleck
  • The Impending Crisis of the South by Hinton Helper
  • Lives by Plutarch
  • Scrap Book on Law and Politics, Men and Times by George Robertson
  • Several works by William Shakespeare (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear…)

I’ve seen a quotation attributed to Lincoln commenting on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which would be intriguing due to the assassination…but didn’t see it verified. I also saw that Lincoln had read Aesop’s Fables (which is logical, I’d say), but it wasn’t on Bray’s list.

My second thought on Presidents and books is John F. Kennedy supposedly making James Bond (Original Series) (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) popular in the United States. The JFK Library does list From Russia with Love as one of JFK’s favorite books:


On a separate page, they list the President’s favorite books as a child.

I’m comfortable with feeling that Lincoln and Kennedy were both “serious readers” (before the Presidency…it might be hard to read much that isn’t for work as President).

Then, of course, there was Thomas Jefferson (who reportedly said, “I cannot live without books”). Jefferson supposedly had the nicest personal library in the country, and after the collection of the Library of Congress was burned during the War of 1812 (with the British), Jefferson as an ex-President used that personal library to help re-build the Library of Congress (selling them, not donating them as I understand it), and greatly expanding the scope of the collection.

Theodore Roosevelt is another President I think of as a major reader (in addition to being at home in the outdoors…people sometimes see those as contradictory). This quotation is attributed to TR:

“Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls ‘the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”


article at The Art of Manliness by Jeremy Anderberg

has a list of books TR sent to a friend, even saying that the President has read many of them multiple times.

Authors on the list of more than fifty titles include Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens.

More than once, President Barack Obama published a “Summer Reading List”. Obama was sometimes called the “Geek-in-Chief” (liking comic books and science fiction), and the 2016 list included Neal Stephenson:

The President’s Summer Reading List by Melanie Garunay at ObamaWhiteHouseArchives.org

I would expect most Presidents to be readers, in part because of the type of background that has in the past led to the Presidency.

BuzzFeed listed a favorite book for the 44 Presidents there had been by 2014. Note that Buzzfeed may have pictures and stories around the main story which would arguably NSFW (Not Safe For Work). There was one there today which could, for example, get me in trouble if someone saw it over my shoulder at my work…

BuzzFeed article by Dave Odegard

Let me ask this:

Supposed you could create a recommended reading list for any future President (not just for any specific one, including the current President). What would be on it?

I’m going to make some suggestions, and then I’ll see what you say by commenting on the post. If I get at least twenty suggestions (including my own), and they come from at least five people (including me), I’ll do a poll to let people vote on which ones they would most recommend.

Off the top of my head, I think I’d suggest these:

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) by Daniel Kahneman
  • Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales (although it currently has text-to-speech access blocked by the publisher…while that’s the case, I couldn’t put it on the list)
  • The Book of the D*mned by Charles Fort
  • Whole Grains: a Book of Quotations by Art Spiegelman and Bob Schneider (although I might go with another book of quotations)

Hm…I want to add some fiction, for sure, but I’m going to hold off on that. 1984 seems like a choice, but I don’t think that’s quite it. I also would consider having on the list something like Mein Kampf. As you can tell, I would assume, my thought is to open a potential President’s mine and at the same time to make them more mindful. Culturally, though, I think a knowledge of socially impactful fiction would be important.

Let’s just leave it there for now, and I’ll be interested to see what you say…

Happy Presidents’ Day!

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


9 Responses to “Leading by reading: Presidents and books”

  1. Phink Says:

    1) A Higher Call by: Adam Makos — For one reason it has great insight into history while also having a lot of excitement and edge of your seat reading. Also, 97% of Amazon customers gave it 4 or 5 stars. That is simply stunning and why I read the book. It currently ranks as my 5th favorite all time and 2nd favorite non-Potter book with a personal rating of 9.63. It is an amazing book.

    2) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — I almost typed ‘simply because everyone should read these books’ but that sounded almost pompous. Not everyone will love what I love but to me it’s the greatest series of books ever written…..well, that I have read to date I guess.

    3) Valley Forge: By Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen: Simply because President’s need to be reminded of how much suffering it took to make this nation plus it’s a great book. To read it is to better understand true suffering for a cause. It made me want to protect that cause even more.

    4) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by: Harriet A. Jacobs — Again, a look into history while being great story telling. It’s my 19th favorite book of all time with a rating of 9.2. I got mine for free but that link is broken. It now list for 58 cents at Amazon. It’s in the public domain so perhaps there is also a free version I did not discover in my quick search for it.

  2. Erwin Osborn Says:

    Thank you. As of today both ilmk and 221B are up-to-date.

  3. Robert Poss Says:

    Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed, E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy.

  4. Lady Galaxy Says:

    The first book I would recommend for any world leader is “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff” by Richard Carlson. When you are responsible for the safety and well being of millions in your own country and billions world wide, you can’t afford to let the little things distract you from your job. The second book I would recommend is “The Cow In The Parking Lot: A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger” by Susan Edmiston and Leonard Scheff. If you are the leader of a country with nuclear capability, you can’t afford to let your anger run away with you.

    And for those world leaders who don’t read, I would suggest that “the play’s the thing.” I’d seriously recommend Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “Richard III.”

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      The Cow in the Parking Lot: I didn’t know that one! Looks interesting.

      Hm…I would consider both of those plays cautionary tales for world leaders! I’m not sure many people who don’t read would find Shakespeare any easier. 🙂 I loved learning Shakespearean analysis when I was an actor…certainly made things a lot clearer.

  5. Edward Boyhan Says:

    I’m not sure that I agree with your basic premise that presidents would benefit from reading.

    Not everyone is temperamentally suited to the reading fashion. I can think of several presidents that were not so bad that did not have any particular regard for the reading of books.

    Reading is a time consuming activity, and I can think that a fast tempo in the WH might suggest that time taken for reading might in fact be deleterious.

    There are many styles and behaviors that leaders might adopt. I don’t think there’s any particular formula as to what might make a good leader.

    A well respected psychiatrist in NYC told me some years back of a talk he had attended given by (I think Erich Fromm). He (Fromm) listed what he thought all the good traits that psychologists had learned as contributing to good leadership skills.

    At the very end of the talk (and I’m paraphrasing here) he said that I think what I’ve just given you are the things that might make for an acceptable vice president, but as to what might make a good president, I fear I don’t have a clue — nor does anybody else.

    In any event I would never be so presumptuous to make a booklist for a prospective president.

    One irony from the lists in your post was the inclusion of Mark Twain’s stuff in TR’s list. A few years back I read the autobiography of Mark Twain in which he indicated that he absolutely detested TR (:grin). MT was very friendly with another president: U.S. Grant — he helped Grant finish his autobiography as he was sick with his terminal illness. 

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Well, you’ve certainly challenged a basic belief of mine, so I thank you! 🙂 Saying that it might not be a good thing for someone to read for me is like saying that it is a good thing to burn yourself…it seems that integral. However, I suppose I could come up with scenarios where burning yourself was beneficial, and it’s not good to read in every single circumstance (having to escape a fire, for example, is not the time to be actively reading).

      My thought was that they would read them before they were sworn into the office, not during.

      I don’t find it particularly presumptuous…it doesn’t seem out of the scope of a citizen to suggest a list of books for a President. It might be presumptuous to require one, but you know how I feel about required reading. 🙂

      I love it when people suggest books for me to read…I would guess many potential Presidents would appreciate it as well.

      While it may be ironic that TR liked works from someone who perhaps detested the President, it shows how the art and the artist can be two different things. I wish I had been that mature when I had my experience with John Belushi, that I related here:


      Of course, maybe the timing was such that TR liked MT without knowing about the latter’s opinion…

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