How reading helped Obama deal with the 'isolation' of leadership

President Barack Obama
Photo by Charles Ommanney

Being the leader of the free world brings with it incredible power, responsibility and influence. It also involves feelings of seclusion, especially during crises.

President Barack Obama says that, at those times, he turned to books.

"During very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating. So sometimes you have to hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated," says Obama, in a wide-reaching interview with Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for The New York Times.

After the mass killings in Newtown, Conn., or in the midst of the financial crisis, for example, Obama says that he consulted the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela.

"I found those particularly helpful, because what you wanted was a sense of solidarity," says Obama.

Similarly, Obama found comfort in the biographies of Presidents who occupied the White House before him.

"I do think that there's a tendency, understandable, to think that whatever's going on right now is uniquely disastrous or amazing or difficult," says Obama. "And it just serves you well to think about Roosevelt trying to navigate World War II or Lincoln trying to figure out whether he's going to fire [George B.] McClellan when Rebel troops are 20, 30, 40 miles away."

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In addition to reading history, Obama picked up novels and plays.

"Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country," he says.

Shakespeare, in particular, is a favorite of the 44th President. The playwright's tragedies are "foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings," he says.

Like most successful leaders and entrepreneurs, Obama is a lifelong fan of books. And, as he transitions out of the White House, he says he is looking forward to having more time to catch up on reading, and on his own writing, too.

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