Books Chapter & Verse

Are Obama's happiest reading days just ahead?

Like other ex-presidents, Obama is now freer to enjoy the great pleasure of a good book. 

President Barack Obama, with daughters Sasha, left, and Malia, right, goes shopping at a small bookstore, One More Page, in Arlington, Va., Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
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As Barack Obama exits the presidency, one of the nation’s most visible champions of books will resume his private life – and, quite possibly, find a little more time for his own reading.

When the soon-to-be-ex-president isn’t reading books, it’s a safe bet that he’ll be spending a good bit of his time writing them. Post-presidential memoirs are a longstanding American tradition, and Obama will almost surely make his own contribution to the genre.

His work as an author, after all, helped catapult Obama to national prominence in the first place. “Dreams from My Father,” his 1995 memoir of his biracial origins, sold briskly when it was reissued in 2004, advancing Obama’s celebrity in advance of his rapid political rise.

In a recent Esquire interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Obama explained his introspective personality in literary terms.    

“I like my quiet time,” he told Goodwin. “There is a writer’s sensibility in me sometimes, where I step back.”

Like most accomplished writers, Obama is an avid reader, and he used the bully pulpit of his presidency to promote the written word. The president’s summer reading list, widely publicized each year as he vacationed in Martha’s Vineyard, created a recurring media buzz. Last summer’s titles included William Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” and “H is for Hawk,” naturalist Helen Macdonald’s bestselling memoir. Obama’s bookstore browsing on Martha’s Vineyard also made headlines.

Obama’s reading habit placed him in the company of many other presidential bookworms, including John F. Kennedy, an avid bibliophile; Harry S. Truman, a history buff; Theodore Roosevelt, who read anywhere and everywhere; Abraham Lincoln, who was passionate about Shakespeare; and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, political rivals who nevertheless ended up forming a bond over their love of the written word.

Being the leader of the free world, of course, leaves little time for reading for pleasure, which is why most presidents probably do their best reading before and after leaving office.

In Truman’s post-presidential letters, the joy he feels at his sudden windfall of time for reading is evident. In March, 1953, just a couple of months after exiting the White House, Truman relished reading the collected correspondence between Adams and Jefferson.

That’s the kind of pleasure Obama can look forward to. Though post-presidential life must be a letdown in many ways, there’s a lot to be said for a spare hour, a comfortable chair, and a good book.

– Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.” 

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