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Obama's 2011 Summer Reading List

Obama's 2011 Summer Reading List

By Alexis Simendinger - August 20, 2011

If Americans imagine that President Obama is spending his summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard holed up with tomes like “How to Get What You Want” or “Harvard Business Review on Decision Making” or “Federal Income Taxation Concepts and Insights,” think again.

The president enjoys fiction, and he likes books that come off the shelf the old-fashioned paper way. He’s fond of novels and family dramas more than weighty nonfiction when it comes to his vacations, according to a book list released by the White House on Saturday afternoon. There was, by the way, one nonfiction selection that seems likely to end up on the bedside tables of both Barack and Michelle Obama.

The president, who earned a small fortune writing two best-selling books about his own life, shopped Friday for 20 minutes with his daughters at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on the island before spending a long afternoon playing golf.

Although the White House did not disclose what Malia and Sasha chose to read during their break from Washington, the president purchased at least two books his aides identified as Daniel Woodrell’s Louisiana-inspired crime collection titled “The Bayou Trilogy: Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do,” and a Chicago-based novel by Ward Just, “Rodin’s Debutante.”

The president arrived on Martha's Vineyard, aides said, toting Abraham Verghese's "Cutting for Stone," a novel about twin brothers born to an Indian mother and a British father who journey from Ethiopia to America; David Grossman's "To the End of the Land," a family drama set in Israel; and the narrative nonfiction book "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” about the exodus of blacks from the South, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson.

Wilkerson’s book, which she spent 15 years researching and writing, is likely to be as fascinating to the first lady as it may be to the president. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama’s grandfathers hailed from South Carolina and Alabama before setting out to seek better opportunities in the northern migration described in Wilkerson’s book.

And “The Warmth of Other Suns” includes an account of the life of Ida Mae Gladney, who fled sharecropping and Mississippi’s cotton fields in 1937 to build a new life in Chicago. In the book, Gladney described how she met a young state senator named Barack Obama at a 1996 community meeting, and in 2008 proudly cast her vote to send him to the White House.

Not to be left out should the president be too busy to visit every island bookstore, CNBC reported, the owners of the Vineyard’s Edgartown Books sent the Obamas a courtesy basket of books this week, delivered to the Blue Heron Farm retreat rented by the first family. One of the gifts piled into a basket was “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which suggests that either White House aides are confused about the reading material the president brought with him from Washington, or the Obamas now have two copies of the book.

Also in the Edgartown Books’ collection: "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles, a novel set in Jazz Age Manhattan; "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin," a novelistic history featuring a Chicagoan-turned-ambassador, by journalist Erik Larson; and “Caleb’s Crossing,” by Geraldine Brooks, a novel about the first Native American (from Martha’s Vineyard) to graduate from Harvard. The store also selected four books for Malia and Sasha and included a board game for group fun.

During his 2010 vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Obama’s fiction selections were analyzed by critics as a bit dark for a beach holiday, but intriguing because of the president’s personal exploration of family, love and rejection. Last summer he picked up Jonathan Franzen's “Freedom,” about a dramatically dysfunctional family; “Tinkers,” an award-winning debut novel by Paul Harding, about a clock repairman who tells his family on his deathbed about his father's struggles and his own turbulent childhood; and “A Few Corrections” by Brad Leithauser, about a son who embarks on a quest after his father’s death to discover the truth about a man he never really knew. For Malia and Sasha, the president bought “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “The Red Pony” by John Steinbeck.

In 2009, during his first summer holiday as president, Obama’s book selections were more conventionally cerebral and fact-based, including David McCullough's biography of John Adams, and Thomas Friedman's best-seller “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” which looked at climate change and globalization.

Paying a visit to the island’s small bookstores is part of the Obamas’ routine each summer. Their support for island merchants is considered by locals to be a welcome plug in a precarious economy, especially in the publishing world -- and even if many of Martha’s Vineyard customers don’t think twice about price. Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books may be thriving this summer, but not all booksellers, small or large, can claim the same. The closing of Borders, for instance, is evidence that being “big” is not necessarily a fortress against hard times. Nearly 11,000 employees nationwide will be out of work when all Borders locations are closed later this year. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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