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Books Made President Obama The Leader We Admire

January 18, 2017

President Obama leaves the White House with very strong approval ratings and a high regard from his fellow citizens.   That is the way it should be for someone who has served honorably, never once tarnishing the White House with scandal.   As I thought about how to write this blog post–possibly the last one about Obama as he still serves–I came across a news story that warmed me and also took me back to my own childhood.

Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world — by reading and writing as 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.

During his eight years in the White House — in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions — books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.

“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.” These two things, he added, “have been invaluable to me. Whether they’ve made me a better president I can’t say. But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up.”

To this day, reading has remained an essential part of his daily life. He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her (including “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Golden Notebook” and “The Woman Warrior”). And most every night in the White House, he would read for an hour or so late at night — reading that was deep and ecumenical, ranging from contemporary literary fiction (the last novel he read was Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”) to classic novels to groundbreaking works of nonfiction like Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction.”

One can always spot someone who reads books from those who do not.  My partner who is a college professor can pick out those who had books in their homes as children from those who did not.  When it comes to leaders the same is true.  President Obama shines with intellect when answering questions or explaining policy.  Much of that ability comes from his reading and exploring issues found in the pages of books.

I know that in the weeks and months to come as Obama finds his time more relaxing and less stressful he will often find the pleasure of life within the covers of a book.  May there never be a shortage of  great reads alongside his bedside table.

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