Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Books

Bancroft: Book lover Obama has been an inspirational reader in chief

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If you love books, for the last eight years you've had a friend in the White House.

President Barack Obama is an avid and sophisticated reader (and accomplished writer) who has put his deep appreciation for books and literature front and center throughout his two terms in the White House.

Poets read at both his inaugurations, Elizabeth Alexander in 2009, Richard Blanco in 2013. In his farewell speech in Chicago last week, Obama gave a shoutout to Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird when he quoted Atticus Finch's advice on walking around inside another person's skin.

Obama has invited dozens of authors to the White House and bestowed awards on many of them: the Medal of Freedom to Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Gloria Steinem, the National Medal of Arts to Lee, Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, Rita Dove and others.

A tradition for the Obama family has been a bookstore visit before vacation, with the president's summer reading list posted on the White House website. In the last two years, his eclectic lists have included such novels as Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train and Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See as well as nonfiction books like Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk, Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction and Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me.

In October, Obama gave Wired magazine a list of his essential books, those that had shaped him personally and politically. It includes biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and of businessmen Andy Grove and Robert Moses, James Baldwin's essay collection The Fire Next Time, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln and Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. If you haven't read them, Wired estimates you can catch up with 89 hours of reading.

In 2015, the New York Review of Books published an extraordinary interview with award-winning novelist (Gilead, Home) Marilynne Robinson, conducted by Obama. Published in two parts, the insightful conversation between them ranges over literature and other topics, including the Christianity that is a pervasive theme in her novels, the politics of fear and their shared experience of small-town Midwestern values. (Robinson lives and sets many of her books in Iowa, and Obama was raised largely by his maternal grandparents, who were from towns in Kansas.) They also talked about Hamilton, which Obama called "brilliant. … I'm pretty sure this is the only thing Dick Cheney and I have agreed on — in my entire political career."

Obama has also passionately promoted reading for young people. He and first lady Michelle Obama have made a practice of reading out loud to youngsters at gatherings at the White House and elsewhere. Where the Wild Things Are is one of the president's favorites and gets the full dramatic treatment when he reads it. Last year, he announced a books initiative to work with publishing houses to donate $250 million in free e-books — about 10,000 titles — to low-income students.

Obama is a bestselling author himself, of course. His first two books, Dreams From My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006), helped propel him into the White House and have earned him millions of dollars. Audacity sold more than 4 million copies and has been translated into 30 languages. In 2010 he published Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, a children's book illustrated by Loren Long. All of the proceeds from that book, also a bestseller, have benefitted a scholarship fund for the children of fallen and disabled U.S. service personnel.

Obama is likely to turn up on the lists again before long. Autobiographies by former presidents are surefire bestsellers. The word in the industry is that publishers are vying heatedly for Obama's, and that he is likely to sign a contract for the book that will at least match the $15 million Bill Clinton received for My Life, published three years after Clinton left office. (That was, at the time, the largest book advance ever paid; the book sold more than 2.2 million copies.)

Many past presidents have fostered the love of books during their terms. Clinton is an enthusiastic book lover whose presidential reading habits helped propel sales for such authors as Angelou, Walter Mosley and Gabriel García Marquez. George W. Bush had an annual "reading duel" with adviser Karl Rove to see who could read the most books. (Bush tended to favor biographies and sometimes finished two books per week.)

But books, it seems, will be on the back shelf in the Trump White House. When Megyn Kelly asked Donald Trump what books he has been reading in a recent interview, he said, "I read passages, I read areas, chapters. I don't have the time" to read entire books.

Pressed to name his favorite books, Trump has usually cited the Bible: "Nothing beats the Bible, not even The Art of the Deal," one of his own books, which he has named the second-greatest book ever.

The Art of the Deal is one of more than a dozen books with his name on the cover, but Trump admits he didn't write it. He sat for interviews with ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, who then wrote the book. (Published in 1984, it has sold about 1 million copies.)

Perhaps in his new position Trump might develop a desire to read more books, but until then, teachers and parents who want their kids to be inspired to love books will have to seek role models someplace other than the White House.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

     
             
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