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.
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.”
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:
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…
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!
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