Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 19, 2009

OBAMA'S READING LIST.... Barack Obama, it is safe to say, likes books more than his predecessor did. We know that much because he has written a couple of good ones -- most notably, the well-received memoir Dreams From My Father, which launched him into the public sphere as a writer before his political career began -- and because it is not a news event when he reads one, as it was when George W. Bush announced that he intended to thumb through Camus's The Stranger on his summer vacation two years ago.

A president who is a serious reader is of course likely to be shaped by what he reads, and we know a bit about what has been on Obama's list so far. From interviews, we know that Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls made an impression on him as a young man. His campaign reading list -- or at least the books he chose to be seen with on the trail -- included Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment, Larry Bartels's Unequal Democracy, Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. And we know that, at least in the case of the latter book, Obama's choice of reading has already had some impact on his governing choices (or at least on how pundits frame them on the Sunday-morning talk shows).

So in the hope that he's willing to take a few more reading assignments, we asked a few of our favorite writers and thinkers to offer their suggestions on what the new president should have by his bedside. These writers and thinkers include: Reza Aslan, Andrew Bacevich, Jacques Barzun, Alan Brinkley, Steve Coll, Debra Dickerson, James Fallows, Joel Garreau, Nathan Glazer, Jeff Greenfield, David Ignatius, John Judis, Rachel Maddow, Joe Nocera, George Pelecanos, Jim Pinkerton, Walter Shapiro, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Ron Suskind.

Their recommendations, in the upcoming January/February issue of the Washington Monthly, can be read here

(the original text has been substituted by this slightly longer item)

Steve Benen 5:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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To hear the Rove stories, Bush was a prodigious reader. I guess if you look at the dust jackets, that technically "counts" as reading a book.

The list here is excellent--I wholly endorse "The People's History of the U.S." by Zinn too. I would also recommend "The Illusion of Victory, America in WW I," by Fleming. That conflict shaped the modern world and our modern political parties.

Posted by: Sparko on January 19, 2009 at 6:10 AM | PERMALINK

I would recommend John Julius Norwich's three volume Byzantium. Obama can't be too prepared for backstabbing, intrigue and treachery on an epic scale, and the Byzantines had that down to perfection for a thousand years. Plus, its a wonderful read.

Posted by: Saint Zak on January 19, 2009 at 7:05 AM | PERMALINK

Addressing the tremendous ignorance by Americans of the ME region, I would suggest, "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

Considering the economic stress the Bush admin has placed on him, I would recommend "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein.

Posted by: IntelVet on January 19, 2009 at 7:18 AM | PERMALINK

If he hasn't read them in a while, might I suggest reviewing, John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" but replace "Okies" with "Latinos".

Then pick up some Dickens.

It may lend some urgency towards economic support of the populace.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on January 19, 2009 at 7:37 AM | PERMALINK

And we already know he has The Art of War memorized.

Now, speaking of reading, did anyone read this entry after it was posted? Your apostrophes have HTMLitis.

Posted by: The Answer WAS Orange on January 19, 2009 at 7:50 AM | PERMALINK

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam - Neil Sheehan

From NY Times: "Thus so much of the literature on Vietnam is one of disillusion: in the Vietnamese, in our leaders, in ourselves. ''A Bright Shining Lie,'' as its very title suggests, is rooted in that disillusion. It vividly dramatizes and holds up to merciless scrutiny the Washington geopoliticians who ''wanted native regimes that would act as surrogates for American power,'' a United States military leadership marked by ''professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity,'' an American elite ''stupefied by too much money, too many material resources, too much power, and too much success'' and an admired protagonist who turns out to be something other than he seemed."

Posted by: MissMudd on January 19, 2009 at 7:58 AM | PERMALINK

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry.

I read this title a couple years ago. It points out how the military, the public health authorities and federal government can conspire to fool the public during a crisis for all the usual sordid, deplorable, self serving reasons. Botch a Katrina and complicate matters to the point several hundred die needlessly. Botch a pandemic and add a few hundred thousand to the death rolls. I'd recommend for any politician to knock this out one evening before the next day choosing between sucking it up and leveling with the public or going "Nixon" on an issue.

Posted by: steve duncan on January 19, 2009 at 8:02 AM | PERMALINK

Let's not overload him with books. Barack Obama now needs something that would help him in the process of inner healing...free from voodoo talk and treatment.

I would suggest "Vibrational Medicine For The 21st Century" by Dr Richard Gerber, MD.

This book provides various options in healing...not just popping pills or jogging or gyms.

A challenge before us is not just healing the body, but also the mind and the spirit.

The mind needs constant healing, and Dr Gerber's book is a marvelous treatise that reveals a harmonious confluence of science and alternative medicine for good health.

Dr Gerber's book is written in a simple/lucid style and a joy to read. Try it, Obama! For you would need it in view of the challenges (and the sleepless nights) that lie ahead. Cheers...

Posted by: Swaraaj Chauhan on January 19, 2009 at 8:13 AM | PERMALINK

Give a little credit to the previous administration. Evidence suggests that they all studied George Orwell's 1984 very carefully. Although they did seem to treat is as a how-to book instead of a cautionary tale.

Posted by: Rick on January 19, 2009 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

Well, I'd recommend Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Both Lincoln and Truman kept this by their sides and said that it was the most important book about people they ever read. I'd say that the recommendation of those two counts for something.

While it's a difficult book, it gives profound insight into people of power, their successes and failures and how the succeeded.

Posted by: MichMan on January 19, 2009 at 8:49 AM | PERMALINK

Jared Diamond: Collapse

Posted by: Zandru on January 19, 2009 at 9:31 AM | PERMALINK

Much underappreciated is the way in which agricultural policy, industrial policy, food policy, energy policy, environmental policy, immigration policy, land use policy, health care policy and the economy are all tightly intertwined and need to be considered holistically. This one area of focus would aid so very many problems yet I fear it is lost behind easier to grasp or more headline-grabbing problems.

To draw what I consider proper emphasis I would recommend the following series of five books that, collectively, really drive the point home and inform possible solutions:

Pollan "The Omnivore's Dilemma"
Schlosser "Fast Food Nation"
Schlosser "Reefer Madness"
Kingsolver "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"
Ettlinger "Twinkie, Deconstructed"

All well written, good reads, yet interesting, provocative and collectively they present a very strong thesis.

Posted by: zeitgeist on January 19, 2009 at 9:39 AM | PERMALINK

Always look forward to reading especially your list. Absolutely the best ideal because there is so much to say and talk about.

Steven and Hilzoy always seem to come up something interesting and this is one of them. Not just for Obama but all the leadership in any part of the Obama administration to hear about or read about our comments is wonderful. But, to see an understanding of our basic seeking values, by authors of our time, for good in a society is the goal.

America’s great thinkers always reveal or list their favorite books in history. It will likely expose a personal view that transcends a personal biased interview by corporate Journal jockeys. My personal believes are changed by a single author or groups better a group many times that starts to overwhelm an insane motive that was considered acceptable by society. Remember the world was flat for a long while, for centuries. Imagine an Aristotle mind in argument with a new Copernican approach to the way we all look at our place in the universe. We have them today too, it’s called the Congress.

For me, that simple question of what do read asked of Sarah Palin “Destroyed her political and intellectual thinking for any basic leadership position in national government let alone local government”. Palin looked stymied when asked what do you read, and even if coached in what to say anyone with basic social skills would at least included best sellers to see what Americas literary community reads. Not just magazines and politically controlled propaganda rages. Or propaganda cable. Ha ha. And she has a degree in journalism? Well here we have what Rachel Maddow coined as Political “Quackitude” or quack a moose gobble gobble Sarah’s way out of a mess.

For me, the best part of the list was the hyper link by James Fallows


The American Defense Meltdown, very interesting, especially chapter nine about Americas “National Guard”. Here and argument can be made very harshly and fully condemning Governors as well as the President and Joint Chiefs of the Military as the strategic approach of using America’s National Guard as a serious part of the war in Iraq.

It is obvious and clear to me that there was a total disregard for inequity; please don’t include the usual unintentional consequence involved here. There is an understanding that hundreds of thousands of National Guard troops have been implemented in this war. The results evaporated local recourses not just in community safety but basics in payroll taxes or basic family needs stressed to unreported and unfair circumstances in a chain effect that leads to our states failing good leadership across the spectrum. Here, twenty eight states are in financial jeopardy, now near half of our Union screwed up, this just is pitiful and horrible.

The paramount ideal that Water Boarding was not torture fails for me. It is clear torture and those responsible for administering this technique need to be prosecuted for criminal actions in violation of not only the Constitution but international law.

This must be done to redeem America leadership roll in the world or all of the great speeches Obama makes will add little value to clean up America’s wrong ways by Bush and Company. And that is a tough decision to disgrace a Political Party responsible for that action will likely destroy it. Because it is a definite and clear argument that the Republican’s own this ideal.

To me the political fight is very fierce and the momentum is with the Democrats especially in Illinois politics in reference to Blagojevich and his tainting is a definite direction, by a whole legislature that is biased against Blagojevich to rid him by whim rather than good law. For me Fitzgerald , the hero is rather dysfunctional only sending Ryan to jail. This whole mess is going to take a serious look at “flea bargaining” which might be worse than ear marks. Just what in the hell is either one, or is that the unknown ether Einstein was talking about?

The game plan is going, imagine getting rid of an opponent because of policy disagreements. That is a twilight illegal zone but it has been done with Bush’s Attorney general for eight years. The media is clearly oppressed this infraction, like Habeas Corpus turned into a Judicial Hubris Circus. The media owned by the Republican’s is moving with caution now, for them. Even with such power Republican’s are out flanked by brilliant moves in the Democratic Party.

Gee, if Water Boarding is not torture perhaps America can implement it in our high schools to straighten out those hard problems. Oh, you say that would be cruel and unusual punishment or even abuse that is criminal. Well, well, well aren’t we American…spreading with the best of the best. Or is it the worst of the worst, Bush and Company…reforming the new world order…or disorder…sheesh.

Posted by: Megalomania on January 19, 2009 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

I've got that Zakaria book waiting unread on the nightstand ... I wonder if Obama thought it was any good.

Posted by: Franklin on January 19, 2009 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

Dammit! Don't do this to me! I've already got a stack of a books as tall and wide as me just waiting to be read! I can't take anymore!

Right now I'm trying to alternate between fiction and non-fiction so as to prevent my brain from turning into mush.

Posted by: doubtful on January 19, 2009 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK
Barack Obama, it is safe to say, likes books more than his predecessor did.

Actually, probably not. Bush is an avid reader who reads mostly non-fiction. Both Obama and Bush probably read about the same amount. Maybe Bush reads more, maybe Obama does. Regardless, they both read a ton. I know it is fun for the Left to claim Bush is dumb, but, if you step back from the brink of BDS for a few, you will see the reality.

Posted by: William Teach on January 19, 2009 at 10:34 AM | PERMALINK

I suggest Obama check out 'My Pet Goat" from the Bush library so he can see what the other side of the aisle is reading and "look into their minds" and see that their main IDIOT is happily leaving and that their cover is really, really bare.

PALIN 2012

Posted by: barkleyg on January 19, 2009 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

I know it is fun for the Left to claim Bush is dumb... -William Teach

I guess we're just misunderestimating him, then.

C'mon, William. Colorin' books don't count as non-fiction.

Posted by: doubtful on January 19, 2009 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK


and for the girls:


Posted by: The Last American on January 19, 2009 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Posted by: DanJoaquinOz on January 19, 2009 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK


State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, by Pat Buchanan

I guess I'm just a romantic dreamer.

Posted by: Luther on January 19, 2009 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

I'd suggest to Obama that he read some fun stuff. Come on guys, the guy is bombarded by information at every waking hour and everyone is suggesting another policy orientated book? I'd suggest taking it easy once in a while and reading something by Terry Pratchett, Thud!, would be a good one.

Posted by: bruce from chicago on January 19, 2009 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

I was disappointed in the list from experts for the most part: they mostly want him to get to the know their pet issue and their notion of the world a bit better. My suggestion: read novels and talk to experts about the other stuff. Novels (short stories, poems and plays) will keep Obama in touch with the struggles of the human heart.

Most of the books in this list seem like books that emerged from a lecture or a briefing. Have someone give you the briefing. And Pelecanos is being modest: read his novels about the "worlds" of your new hometown.

Posted by: clarenceo on January 19, 2009 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Anything by Jean Houston, one of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. Her autobiography, A Mythic Life, is very relevant to these times. She has worked with some of the most brilliant thinkers, including Margaret Meade, Joseph Campbell, Teillard de Chardin, Virginia Satir and Eleonar Roosevelt, to name just a few. Her brilliance and entertaining presentation of profound truths is legendary. One of her key writing is The Possible Human. She has also worked with Buckminster Fuller and currently lives in the last house he ever designed, a double geodesic dome in Ashland, OR. Visit her website: www.jeanhouston.com, for more on her work.

I am committed to Oneness through Justice and Transformation

st john

Posted by: st john on January 19, 2009 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

While I wouldn't call either 'light reading,' I strongly recommend that Obama read John Locke's Second Treatise on Government- which I call the source material for the US Constitution- and a good summary of Immanuel Kant's philosophy. Kant's ruminations on how democratic republics- and I believe Kant clearly assumed that these would be capitalist entities- would never go to war against each other is worth studying.


Posted by: Zorro on January 19, 2009 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

Das Kapital, the Communist Manifesto and the Koran - oh wait, he already has them memorized.

Posted by: fred t on January 19, 2009 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, Fred, who says irony is dead?

I really didn't want that to rhyme,

Posted by: Zorro on January 19, 2009 at 5:06 PM | PERMALINK

Why even bother with this topic? We ALL know that Obama is the sharpest tack in the drawer and Bush is dumber than a sack of hammer. Why explore any avenue that might contradict that worldview?

(Psst, was that too much sarcasm for you lefties?)

Posted by: Texas Pete on January 19, 2009 at 6:56 PM | PERMALINK



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