President Obama’s Shelf Awareness

BY James Melia  August 23, 2011 at 3:00 PM EDT

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President Obama walks out of Bunch of Grapes bookstore over the weekend in Vineyard Haven, Mass., with his daughters, Malia, right, and Sasha. Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

President Obama is on summer vacation in Martha’s Vineyard for the week, and with record-low approval ratings, a slumping economy and eight Republican presidential hopefuls trashing his every move, the president’s reasons for wanting to get away from Washington for a few days are great and many.

Like many Americans, presidents often turn to a good book to ease a troubled mind, and dissecting their summer reading lists has become a bit of an annual tradition. For publishers, having a book on the list can help give titles, like “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf, a fresh boost in sales or fan the flames of an already blazing media frenzy, as President Obama did last summer when he picked up a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom.’

“In terms of attention for a work of literature, you can’t buy that kind of publicity for love or money,” says Jeff Seroy, senior vice president of publicity and marketing at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Seroy was the man who oversaw all marketing and publicity for Franzen’s novel last summer, a book that is now enjoying not only presidential publicity, but was a book club selection from Oprah Winfrey — another huge deal in the publishing world. “It’s impossible to say exactly how much effect either of them — Obama and Oprah — had, but I’m sure it’s fair to say that each of them brought many thousands of readers to the book who might not have found it otherwise,” says Seroy.

This week, five authors are receiving the welcome media attention and an inevitable boost in sales for being chosen as the president’s beach reading:


“The Bayou Trilogy” by Daniel Woodrell, a series of three detective novels set in the Louisiana swamplands.

“Rodin’s Debutante” by Ward Just, a novel that chronicles the coming of age of a young, poor sculptor and his rise in the intellectual community of Chicago’s Hyde Park.

“Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese, an epic novel spanning decades, continents and generations centered around twin brothers and the different paths their lives take.

“To the End of the Land” by David Grossman, a novel that tells the story of an Israeli mother who, when her son goes off to war, retreats into the wilderness, believing her seclusion from the world will protect her son.

“The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, the only work of non-fiction for the president is the product of 15 years of research chronicling the decades-long migration of African-Americans from the South to northern and western cities from 1915-70.

“In so many places we’re told that nobody reads, books are dead, that sort of thing, yet there is this widespread interest in what a president reads,” says Julia Keller, cultural critic for The Chicago Tribune. “It tells you about his thinking, his worldview.”

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President John Kennedy and first lady Jackie Kennedy share a book while sailing aboard the U.S. Coast Guard yacht Manitou in Narragansett Bay, R.I. Photo by Robert Knudsen, White House/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

The fascination with what the commander in chief is reading didn’t start with Obama, of course. Karl Rove wrote about his reading competition with President George W. Bush, with the former president reportedly devouring as many as 91 books in one year. President Teddy Roosevelt was famous for his love of reading, finishing two to three books in a day. President Ronald Reagan helped make Tom Clancy a household name when he described “The Hunt for Red October” as “unputdownable.”

The nation’s interest in what’s on the president’s nightstand perhaps peaked during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who, when asked what he was reading for pleasure named Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. The handsome, young, Cold War president and the cool, calm, self-assured spy seemed like a perfect fit.

While looking at a president’s reading list can give Americans an insight and connection to their leader, it also provides an easy opportunity for a president to show a softer side. A selection like “To the End of the Land” might show President Obama’s empathy toward military families, and “The Bayou Trilogy” might give him some tough guy clout.

“Reading a book requires more from us, more time and active engagement,” Seroy says. “The choice of what to read can tell us a great deal about someone. That’s why we always look at people’s bookshelves in their homes. It’s a way to define ourselves and learn about who others are.”