Obama Reads Like a Writer

Obama’s summer reading list doesn’t surprise me.

  1. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
  2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  3. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  4. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
  5. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
  6. All That Is by James Salter  (Source: Entertainment Weekly)

It doesn’t surprise me because he’s A WRITER…I mean, a serious writer–like maybe that is the reason he was put on earth. The books that Obama has personally authored show how he is able to combine depth, texture, tension, scene, and ideas into intensely readable prose. His sentences and descriptions are a marvel. Check out the third paragraph of The Audacity of Hope.

“The Senate chamber is not the most beautiful space in the Capitol, but it is imposing nonetheless. The dun-colored walls are set off by panels of blue damask and columns of finely veined marble.”

“Finely veined marble…” Sweet lord, that’s an exquisite detail! Now listen to  the musical sentences our President strings together in Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritanceas stirring as Arron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” In the passage below, he imagines his grandfather courting his grandmother:

“He’s telling her about the big cities, the endless highway, his imminent escape from the empty, dust-ridden plains, where big plans mean a job as a bank manager and entertainment means an ice-cream soda and a Sunday matinee, where fear and lack of imagination choke your dreams so that you already know on the day that you’re born just where you’ll die and who it is that’ll bury you. He won’t end up like that, my grandfather insists; he has dreams, he has plans; he will infect my grandmother with the great peripatetic itch that had brought both their forebears across the Atlantic and half of a continent so many years ago.”

“Peripatetic itch” is an alliterative mega-win.

A few years ago, I watched an interview with one of Obama’s outgoing press officials on PBS (Tangent alert: If I was more diligent, I’d track down his name. By the way, I ran into the press guy’s girlfriend in Chicago last summer at a symposium. I can’t remember her name either, but I recall that she ordered her latte extra hot with extra foam and was elegant for a woman in her late 20s in the way befitting someone who can afford a face full of cosmetic dentistry). During his interview, the press officer said that the most common question he is asked is, “What’s the President really like?” The white house communications official said that people can understand Obama best by thinking of him as having a writer’s brain.

After dinner with his family, Obama seeks alone time to read and write in the Treaty Room on the second floor of the White House. He’ll write out entire speeches on a legal pad with a No. 2 pencil then tweak them on Airforce One or in the President’s Study the following day.

He described to Vanity Fair how, in one instance, he wrote out in longhand a speech that his team had composed.

“It helped organize my thoughts,” he says.

Then he threw away their version and wrote his own until 5:AM on six pages of legal pad in tiny script.

“There are times when I feel like I’ve grabbed onto the truth of something and I’m just hanging on,” he says. “And my best speeches are when I know what I’m saying is true in a fundamental way. People find their strength in different places. That’s where I’m strong.” (Vanity Fair)

I’ve read #3 and #6 on Obama’s book list. Both are filled with sentences filled with humanity and specificity. In James Salter’s All That Is, the author describes a dog sitting in the sun with such precision (I’ve had dogs for 30 years) that I could not look at Moose and Cocoa the same way anymore. Salter changed my perceptions of dogs forever–much the way writer Bonnie West changed how I smell dogs: their feet smell like popcorn.

Obama is a working, reading, thinking, writer. We can learn a lot about writing and about the world by exploring how he processes both through his mind. Because he has a writer’s brain. He just happens to be President of the greatest country in the free world as his day job.


If you like my writing, you’ll love my funny teaching memoir, Dinkytown Braves, free on Kindle Unlimited and $10.33 as a paperback. Also check out Rethinking Classroom Design  (Rowan & Littlefield) co-written with Blake Wiggs or The Best Lesson Series: Literature: 15 Master Teachers Share What Works, edited by Brian Sztabnik. Please leave a review on Amazon to make my day!

Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at www.todd-finley.com || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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