Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad (Fleet, Little, Brown), Liu Cixin's apocalyptic sci-fi epic The Three-Body Problem (Head of Zeus) and V S Naipaul's A Bend in the River (Picador) are some of the novels which helped Barack Obama during his time in the White House, he has said.
National Book Award winner The Underground Railroad is the last novel Obama read while in office, according to the New York Times, in an article illuminating the literary life of the president, who said his convictions and outlook on the world have been shaped by books.
Obama says he used literature while in office “to get out of my own head" as well as to better “imagine what’s going on in the lives of people”, according to the NYT. Presidential biographies also helped to provide context and to counter tendencies to think “that whatever’s going on right now is uniquely disastrous or amazing or difficult”. The US president also said he wanted to encourage a public “conversation about books”.
“At a time when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalisation and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalise — is more important than ever,” he said.
Marilynne Robinson’s novels, published in the UK by Virago, are credited in emotionally connecting the president to small-town values of hard work and humility and the people he was meeting in Iowa during his 2008 campaign, as well as to his Midwest-based grandparents.
By contrast, V S Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River (Picador) was able to serve as "a kind of foil", according to the NYT. Obama said: "[It] starts with the line ‘The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’ And I always think about that line and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.”
Of escapist literature, like Chinese writer Liu Cixin's science fiction, he said it could also unexpectedly put things in perspective. He said specifically of Liu's novel, a Chinese phenomenon published in the UK by Head of Zeus: "The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty — not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade!”
In non-fiction, he named Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin) and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (Bloomsbury) as recent reads.
Meanwhile, books Obama has chosen to share with his daughters Malia and Sasha include Gabriel Garcia Marquez' work of magical realism One Hundred Years of Solitude (Penguin), Doris Lessing's feminist novel The Golden Notebook (HarperCollins) and Maxine Hong Kingston The Woman Warrior (Vintage), about growing up female and Chinese-American in a California laundry.
Obama had lunch last week with Whitehead, as well as other "novelists he admires" Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith and Barbara Kingsolver.
Donald Trump’s inauguration is this Friday (20th January), when he will officially become president at midday. Obama's last night in the White House is this Thursday (19th January).