Obama survived the White House years with books

Us President Barack Obama.
Us President Barack Obama.

NEW YORK • Not since Abraham Lincoln has there been a United States president as fundamentally shaped - in his life, convictions and outlook on the world - by reading and writing as Mr Barack Obama.

Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr Obama sat down in the Oval Office and talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life - from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when "these worlds that were portable" provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.

"At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted," he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally "slow down and get perspective" and "the ability to get in somebody else's shoes".

The writings of Lincoln, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Mr Obama found, were "particularly helpful" when "what you wanted was a sense of solidarity", adding that "during very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating. So sometimes you have to sort of hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated, and that's been useful".

During very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating. So sometimes you have to sort of hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated.


Sometimes, he said, he read fiction "just to escape". For a while, there was a three-volume science-fiction novel, The Three- Body Problem by Liu Cixin, "which was just wildly imaginative, really interesting".

What made you want to become a writer?

I loved reading when I was a kid, partly because I was travelling so much and there were times where I'd be displaced, I'd be the outsider.

When I first moved to Indonesia, I'm this big, dark-skinned kid who kind of stood out. And then when I moved back from Indonesia to Hawaii, I had the manners and habits probably of an Indonesian kid.

And so the idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing to me. And then I became a teenager and wasn't reading that much other than what was assigned in school, and playing basketball and chasing girls, and imbibing things that weren't very healthy. And then, I think I, rediscovered writing and reading and thinking in my first or second year of college and used that as a way to rebuild myself.

What were your short stories like?

It's interesting, when I read them, a lot of them had to do with older people. I think part of the reason was because I was working in communities with people who were significantly older than me.

We were going to churches and, probably, the average age of these folks was 55, 60. A lot of them had scratched and clawed their way into the middle class, but just barely. They were seeing the communities in which they had invested their hopes and dreams and raised their kids starting to decay - steel mills had closed and there had been a lot of racial turnover in these communities. And so there was also this sense of loss and disappointment.

There is not a lot of Jack Kerouac, open road, young kid on the make discovering stuff. It's more melancholy and reflective.

Was writing partly a way to figure out your identity?

Yes, I think so. For me, writing was the way I sorted through a lot of cross-currents in my life - race, class, family. And I genuinely believe it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.

Have certain books been touchstones for you in these eight years?

Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone. Like most teenagers in high school, when we were assigned, I don't know, The Tempest or something, I thought, "My God, this is boring." And I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play out between human beings.

Is that sort of comforting?

It gives me a sense of perspective. Toni Morrison's Song Of Solomon is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it's not just pain, but joy and glory and mystery.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2017, with the headline 'Obama survived the White House years with books'. Print Edition | Subscribe