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Obama’s reading list is the respite we need

September 8, 2018

It’s the classiest, most passive-aggressive move Barack Obama could make: He posted a list of books he’s been reading on Facebook.

That’s it.

“This summer I’ve been absorbed by new novels,” the former president wrote this week, “revisited an old classic, and reaffirmed my faith in our ability to move forward together when we seek the truth.”

Obama didn’t rage against his enemies or attack the pillars of our democracy. He didn’t call anybody a “dog.” He didn’t brag about his own bestsellers -- or the size of his book-reading hands.

Instead, he just presented a small window into the mind of a man who appreciates how books can alter the pace of our lives and illuminate the world.

“One of my favorite parts of summer is deciding what to read when things slow down just a bit,” Obama wrote, “whether it’s on a vacation with family or just a quiet afternoon.”

For a nation showered by the sputtering rage of his replacement, Obama’s implicit reminder of how incurious and aliterate the Oval Office has become is almost cruel.

As usual, the former president’s summer reading list is a model of diverse voices and concerns, without a whiff of that synthetic intellectuality that frequently hovers around politicians’ alleged bedside reading. (Let’s be honest, nobody is really enjoying Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War” and Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” this summer.) Obama’s choices are books that one can easily find at most bookstores or libraries:

1. “Educated,” by Tara Westover (Random House)

Obama describes this as “a remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind.” Westover’s story is even more dramatic than that summary suggests: Her parents home-schooled their seven children largely on matters of faith, but she managed to get into Brigham Young University and eventually attended Harvard and earned a doctorate in history from Cambridge. “Educated” has been on The Washington Post bestseller list since it was published in February.

2. “Warlight,” by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf)

The latest from the Booker Prize-winning author of “The English Patient,” this novel takes place in London just after World War II. Obama notes that it is “a meditation on the lingering effects of war on family.” It tells the story of two British children left by their parents in the care of a stranger. Reviewing the novel for The Post, Anna Mundow wrote, “All is illuminated, at first dimly then starkly, but always brilliantly.”

3. “A House for Mr. Biswas,” by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage)

Obama wrote, “With the recent passing of V.S. Naipaul, I reread ... the Nobel Prize winner’s first great novel about growing up in Trinidad and the challenge of post-colonial identity.” This is a particularly timely choice - the writer died on Aug. 11 - and it also demonstrates the former president’s willingness to ignore the winds of political correctness. Later in life, Naipaul was accused of Islamophobia and misogyny, but that needn’t blot out the artistry of his greatest books.

4. “An American Marriage,” by Tayari Jones (Algonquin)

Obama isn’t the only big name to give this novel a boost this year. Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club in February, and she plans to make a movie adaptation. The story is a perfect blend of thoughtful drama and social issues. When a husband is sent to prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit, he must deal with the horrors of incarceration, and his wife must deal with the challenges of living without him. Obama described it as “a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.”

5. “Factfulness,” by Hans Rosling (Flatiron)

The subtitle of this nonfiction book is “Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think,” which is a message we all could use now. Obama calls Rosling, a Swedish physician, “an outstanding international public health expert,” and notes that “Factfulness” is “a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases.” Given the huge cloud of distortion enveloping the country, this is just what the doctor ordered.

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