Barack’s Books: A List of 19 Authors and Books that Says Has Helped Shape Obama

Yesterday, Laura Miller at had an extensive essay on Barack Obama’s literary influences. I went through the entire essay and share below all the books and authors that she mentions as contributers to the shaping of Obama. Obviously, the list is partial. Miller describes Obama as a devourer of books, and that means that Obama has gleaned insights from thousands of books over his lifetime. As a young man in Chicago, for example, Obama characteristically spent:

many hours holed up in a spartan apartment with volumes of ‘philosophy and literature.’

In any case, here’s the list of the 19 authors and books Miller mentions:


  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
  • Parting the Waters (Taylor Branch)

Money quote on Obama’s history reading:

[W]hen we turn to the book Obama has most recently cited as a major influence, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” it’s not the Lincoln of popular American myth — the secular saint and martyr — we find praised there. It’s Lincoln the wily politician, who was not above carefully hedging his public positions and who prided himself on cajoling his opponents to his side.


  • Friedrich Nietzsche

Money quote on Obama and Nietzsche:

Obama . . . went through a period of “devouring” the work of Nietzsche while living in New York. It’s difficult to say what Obama might have absorbed from the German philosopher, mostly because Nietzsche himself is so hard to pin down, but one of Obama’s favorite instructors at Occidental told Mendell that anyone who immersed themselves in his thought would learn “to call everything into question.”


  • Reinhold Niebuhr. Specifically mentioned is his 1932 classic Moral Man and Immoral Society.

Money quote on Obama and Niebuhr:

Obama told Brooks that what he’d taken from Niebuhr is “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.”


  • Shakespeare


  • Abraham Lincoln

Adolescent Interest:

  • Malcolm X

Money quote on Obama and Malcolm X:

According to “Dreams From My Father,” among the characters in African-American literature, the adolescent Obama felt closest to Malcolm X, whose discipline and “repeated acts of self-creation” impressed him. Yet, when Malcolm wrote of the desire to “expunge” the white blood in his veins, Obama “was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents on some uncharted border.”

Progressive Politics:

  • Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (Saul Alinsky 1971).

Money quote on Obama and Alinsky:

[Obama] has read “Rules for Radicals,” according to his campaign; it would be hard to find any thoughtful community organizer who hasn’t. Hillary Clinton’s senior honors thesis at Wellesley College was on “the Alinsky model,” although after her husband’s election to the presidency, his administration tried to keep it under wraps for fear that it would make her appear too much the firebrand.

If you haven’t read “Rules for Radicals,” it’s not what you might expect. Written with a vigor and a panache that amply convey Alinsky’s legendary charisma, it is less a primer than a concise, witty and iconoclastic manifesto crossed with a war manual à la Sun Tzu. Alinsky wrote it to correct what he viewed as the many fatal errors of the generation of activists produced by the 1960s, whom he regarded as too dogmatic, too self-righteous, too romantic, too idealistic, too infatuated with exotic ideas and too impatient. Stylistically, the model can only be Nietzsche; the book is full of breathtakingly provocative assertions and nifty aphorisms. “He who fears corruption fears life,” Alinsky writes at one point.


  • Herman Melville
  • Toni Morrison
  • E. L. Doctorow (perhaps Obama’s favorite)
  • Philip Roth
  • Ernest Hemmingway
  • Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man 

Money quote on Obama’s novel reading:

A taste for serious fiction is rare in the American male these days, but Obama has it. According to several friends, he even tried his hand at writing short stories during those early years in Chicago, and he recalls priggishly scolding his half sister, Maya, while she was visiting him in New York, because she chose to watch TV instead of reading some novels he’d given her.

I notice no mention of poets or poetry. I wonder if Obama reads poetry, and who he might like. 

Miller’s full essay can be read here:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Barack’s Books: A List of 19 Authors and Books that Says Has Helped Shape Obama

  1. Pingback: Barack Obama, Afghanistan, and a Book That Mattered « Prometheus Unbound

  2. Pingback: Barack Obama and Critical Thinking « Prometheus Unbound

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s