Obama’s Nonfiction Reading Recommendations

Featured photo: President Barack Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia shop for books at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., on Small Business Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama published a list on his Facebook page of his favorite books and music of 2017 and it’s pretty wonderful. As I’ve said, I love lists, especially of others’ favorites (these year end best-of lists make me so happy!) I couldn’t wait to see what had impressed him most from his past year’s reading.

Unlike his successor, Obama actually enjoys and has the attention span for reading materials longer than a double spaced half page. He’s known to be an avid reader and has released some thoughtful, insightful entries for the traditional presidential summer reading lists throughout his terms.

These are his nonfiction favorites from 2017. I took the liberty of highlighting ones that piqued my interest:


Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein – it’s been on my radar, and I was trying to decide if I wanted to read it. His recommendation clinched that decision for me.

Grant, Ron Chernow

Dying: A Memoir, Cory Taylor – Merely reading the description of this book made me sad, so I’ve avoided it. I’m not sure I’m emotionally robust enough to tackle it, meaningful as it sounds.


Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond – Sounds excellent, if scary.

His “bonus for hoops fans” picks:
Coach Wooden and Me, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Basketball (and Other Things), Shea Serrano

I loved his list so much, and I think I just miss having a well-read, intellectually curious president, so I started combing through older lists and recommendations he’s made.

Here are his nonfiction picks from earlier times, including recommendations for his daughters, purchases at DC independent bookstore Politics and Prose, annual summer reading lists, the presidential biographies that inspired him, favorite classics and all-time favorites.


The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston
This memoir of growing up Chinese-American in California was recommended for his daughters. It was required reading for a college class of mine, and I remembered liking but not loving it. I think I’d have a different appreciation for it now, with the passage of time.

Summer reading lists:

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America, Thomas L. Friedman

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan


H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald – I’ve seen such extreme reviews of this one, it seems a case of love it or hate it.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Dr. Atul Gawande


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert – I’ve been intrigued by this one for awhile.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates – I’ve heard only excellent things about this, plus super-cheap ebook deal alert at the link!

His favorite classics:
Self-Reliance and Other Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, Taylor Branch

The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam

The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton


Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Studs Terkel – This sounds intriguing but the length is somewhat daunting.

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois

The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith

My Experiments with Truth: An Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi

His picks in presidential biographies:


Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jonathan Alter

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris

John Adams, David McCullough

Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, Fred Kaplan

FDR, Jean Edward Smith

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin

The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln

Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow

Favorite general nonfiction / informational picks:


Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, Steve Coll – I’ve heard a lot about this one, sounds completely fascinating.

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, Larry Bartels

A Kind And Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court, William Ayers

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert A. Caro

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

Moral Man And Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr

Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, Gordon Goldstein

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American, Richard S. Tedlow

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos


The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo

Well, that made me feel inadequately read. Compared to his reading choices, I can’t help but feel a little uncultured and unaware. He really has some hefty, heavy ones amongst his favorites. Although, some were his summer reads, so I guess they’re not necessarily favorites. Regardless, I’m very impressed by the selections and where his mind goes when choosing reading material.

Have you read any of Obama’s favorite reads or recommendations? Are you planning to? Do you miss having a president who reads something more than McDonald’s wrappers and the tweets of white supremacists?


14 thoughts on “Obama’s Nonfiction Reading Recommendations

Add yours

    1. He really gives some good ones, right? I’d seen Ghost Wars a while ago and then completely forgotten about it, I was happy to be reminded. I miss having this kind of president so much…the gap between the two just seems surreal sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for posting this! I so miss Obama. This list has given me some good ideas for my nonfiction pile. I’m interested in Janesville because my sister lives near there. And Woman Warrior because it’s a diverse perspective. I recently read We Were Eight Years in Power, it was a fascinating book and one I highly recommend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and happy to help contribute to your reading list! I really liked We Were Eight Years in Power too, but I feel a little behind having not gotten to Between the World and Me yet, it also sounds fascinating. Hopefully this year!


    1. Ooh, I’ll have to look into some Bill Gates recommendations, I don’t think I’ve heard anything yet about his reading recs. Obama’s just impressed me so much, especially considering the scope of them over the years. I miss his thoughtfulness and intelligence so much!


  2. Holy cow, what a list! Working has been on my TBR forever – I’m determined to hunt it down secondhand so it may be a while, though! For something that big only a hardcover will do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Evicted is definitely worth reading – incredibly eye-opening. I liked John Adams. Working seems daunting but is broken into segments that are very readable – it went much faster than I expected. Adam Smith was not my cup of tea.

    About half of the rest of these are on my TBR along with all of Obama’s books. Thanks for compiling this list – it had some I hadn’t see before and have added to my wishlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh good to know about Working. I really want to find a copy of it and maybe work through it slowly, it sounds like it’s laid out well for reading in parts. Adam Smith was also not my cup of tea when I had to read it in college, I had to slog through it!

      Glad the list was helpful for you! It was a lot of fun to compile it and I’m happy it could be useful 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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