Read Like a President: Obama’s 2016 Summer Reading List

Riding some of the strongest approval ratings of his Presidency (or, in fact, just about any Presidency), Barack Obama used his immense influence and power for something good this week by announcing his Summer Reading List for his 2016 vacation. One can only imagine how little time a sitting President has to read for pleasure, so I’m pretty certain millions of taxpayer dollars and a team of intellectuals were employed to create the ultimate reading list for the Commander in Chief—and the rest of us can draft on that effort by more or less stealing Obama’s list for our own erudite reading as Summer runs to its end this year.

Here’s the list, released by the White House:

  • Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

The big surprise here? How in the world has anyone not read The Girl on the Train yet? This book was published a year and a half ago and has dominated discussions of books, bestsellers, and movies ever since. The film adaptation starring Emily Blunt is coming out soon—which might explain Obama’s sudden decision to time-travel to 2015 and read that year’s hottest novel.

As for the rest of the list, here’s a rundown:

Finnegan’s book, published in 2015 but raised in profile when it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography, is a fascinating work from a fascinating man. While sports as spiritual savior isn’t a new idea, Finnegan uses the ancient art of surfing and its surrounding culture as a launchpad for a life story that takes him around the world seeking the perfect wave, a journey that also opened up his eyes to the inequality in the world and led him to journalism. Later, he returns to the sport he loves as a wealthier and older man and ruminates on how the culture of surfing has changed, and finds surprising profundity in all of it.

Unsurprisingly, the newest selection of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 made the President’s list. More than just the buzz of being an Oprah book, The Underground Railroad is likely going to be Whitehead’s breakout novel. I’ve already written in detail about this remarkable novel, a book set during the slavery era that uses a bold and specific piece of magical realism to tell a frequently harrowing story all too applicable to our modern day. We’re certainly not living in a post-racism world, and as a result Whitehead’s novel is more or less a must-read for everyone. Including, apparently, the President of the United States.

Macdonald purchased a goshawk after her father’s death; he’d been an ardent falconer and she took on the bird as a way of dealing with her grief. Her story of her time training the hawk is one of the most unusual memoirs you’ll ever read. Written more like a literary novel than a memoir, every sentence appears to have been carved from some sort of soft stone and every paragraph offers a depth of fascinating concepts and ideas. Many people have trouble describing the experience of reading this remarkable book, so the best thing to do is follow Obama’s lead and just read it.

A surprise sci-fi pick, but then if someone of Obama’s caliber is going to read science fiction no doubt it will be the erudite, surprising, and deep science fiction of Neal Stephenson. On the first page of the book the Moon explodes, condemning life on Earth to certain doom. A worldwide effort to salvage something of our race and civilization ensues, until a stark page in the middle of the story suddenly announces 5,000 YEARS LATER. As with all Stephenson’s work, it’s filled with ideas and surprises as the human race dwindles to near extinction ... and yet that is just the beginning of the story, really.

Follow Obama's Lead

If the President of the United States needs to make a reading list in order to ensure he uses his spare time wisely, you should probably do the same. Almost everyone lists “read more” or “read more diversely” as a goal each year, and sometimes the only way to make that happen is to make a list and then force yourself to go through it, one by one. Make it easy on yourself and start off this year by copying Obama’s choices—you really can’t do better when it comes to reading lists.