Literature as survival kit

A European Reading List for Barack Obama

3 minutes to read
Odile Heynders


The New York Times (16 January 2017) published an interview by Michiko Kakutani with Barack Obama, revealing how the former president survived the eight White House years: by reading books. For Obama novels and memoirs were a source of ideas and inspiration, giving him a ‘renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition’. Reading allowed him to maintain balance, and to slow down and get perspective. It offered the ability to get into somebody else’s shoes.

Many literary theorists and philosophers have underlined this power of literature: novels, essays, poetry, memoirs can make someone a ‘world citizen’ and give her an ethical perspective (Martha C. Nussbaum), literature provides recognition, social knowledge and shock (Rita Felski), and it promotes human solidarity by using irony and marking contingencies (Richard Rorty). But what Obama demonstrates – and what certainly goes beyond what these theorists claim – is that reading offers practical knowledge, such as in the case of reading the writings of Lincoln, Martin Luther King or Gandhi, in which Obama found something that was ‘particularly helpful’. As he explained: ‘sometimes you have to sort of hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated, and that’s been useful.’

What more did Obama read then, in the eight years in office? Novels by Marilynne Robinson connecting him emotionally to the people he met in Iowa during the 2008 campaign, to his own grandparents, and ‘the small town values of hard work and honesty and humility’. A sci-fi epic by Chinese author Liu Cixin, which made the ‘day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty’. And The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, offering a surrealist perspective on slavery. It was Whitehead who was, with four other contemporary novelists – Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Junot Díaz, and Barbara Kingsolver - invited for a lunch at the White House in Obama’s last week in office.

A Head of State, keeping in balance by reading literature, seems in February 2017 an already utopian situation.

As Kakutani concludes: in today’s polarized environment, where the internet has let people increasingly retreat to their own bubbles, Obama sees novels as providing a kind of bridge that might span usual divides and might reveal ‘the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day’.

Fascinatingly, none of Obama’s readings is Europe focussed – apparently he did not take up novels or memoirs written in our part of the world. What is significant, though, is that it is in current European literature that we can find some very practical thoughts and experiences, as well as thought-provoking analyses of the complex global, digital and neoliberalist world we live in. Based on this observation, I would suggest this supplement reading list to the former president:

  • Gazmend Kapllani, A Short Border Handbook, 2009. A shocking glimpse into the life of a former migrant, travelling from Albania to Greece and Germany. Showing what it means to have a ‘bad passport’.
  • Rafael Chirbes, Crematorio, 2009, depicting a – Spain-inspired - world of consumerism, ineffective and populist politicians, real estate developers and losers (ordinary fishermen and peasants).
  • M. Houellebecq, Soumission, demonstrating a cynical scenario for France in 2020, when the first Muslim president will be elected and academics will accept the new rules without principles.
  • Sandro Veronesi, Terre rare, 2015, about the everyday life of an ordinary man in Rome, who in 24 hours loses his career, future perspective and principles.
  • And finally, Jenny Erpenbeck’s amazing Gehen, ging, gegangen, 2015, a novel about – again - an ordinary human being, who starts to deal pragmatically with migrants by meeting them, talking to them, and inviting them to stay in his home.

A Head of State, keeping in balance by reading literature, seems in February 2017 an already utopian situation. Wishful thinking. The new nationalist, protectionist and populist American president will probably only read business reports, polls and responses to his own tweets. But to keep in mind grace, empathy and eloquence, let’s read as Barack Obama, and realise that in ‘the final analysis, we are all migrants, armed with a temporary residence permit for this earth, each and every one of us incurably transient.’ (Kaplani 157)