Books and Culture

5 favorite books of US presidents

Former U.S. President Barack Obama sits with a Girl Scout during the first-ever White House Campout June 30, 2015 at South Lawn of the White House.
Alex Wong | Getty Images

In a 2017 New York Times interview former president Barack Obama said that "at a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted" reading allowed him to "slow down and get perspective."

If you find yourself able to slow down in the weekend before Presidents Day, you may want to open one of these favorite books of former U.S. presidents.

"The Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker

Recommended by: Bill Clinton

In a 2018 New York Times interview, Clinton listed Becker's book as one that has "had a profound impact on my thinking."

The Pulitzer Prize winner combines psychology and philosophy to discuss mortality and answer the "why" of human existence.

"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" by James Agee

Recommended by: Jimmy Carter

Agee's writing and Walker Evans' photography document the daily lives of sharecroppers in the south during the Great Depression.

"What impressed me with that book," wrote Carter in a post about the book for The Academy of Achievement, "was the tremendous chasm between people who have everything, who have a house and a job and education and adequate diets, and a sense of success or security, who want to do good things, and the vast array of people still in our country who don't have any of these things, and whom we seldom, if ever, know. That book, among other things, woke me up to the fact that we still have people like this next door, and we are not doing much about it."

"War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy

Recommended by: George H. W. Bush

The classic novel focuses on Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 and the love triangle between Pierre Bezukhoc, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostov.

"I read it twice," said Bush, in a 1995 interview. "It taught me a lot about life."

"From Russia with Love" by Ian Fleming

Recommended by: John F. Kennedy

A 1961 Life magazine article, "The President's Voracious Reading Habits," listed Fleming's novel as one of Kennedy's favorites due to his "weakness for detective stories." This particular tale hinges on a Soviet attempt to assassinate James Bond.

"Long Walk to Freedom" by Nelson Mandela

Recommended by: Barack Obama

In a 2018 Facebook post, Obama called the book "essential reading for anyone who wants to understand history — and then go out and change it."

Mandela vividly describes his childhood, life under the apartheid government in South Africa, his political activity and the 27 years he spent in jail.

"Mandela's life," Obama wrote, "was one of the epic stories of the 20th century."

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