• Barack Obama’s recommended reading covers a wide range of themes.
  • One book that changed the way he thinks about the planet.
  • One book that is emotionally charged and “wrenching”.
  • And that “most essential of American writers”, Mark Twain.

In 2020, Barack Obama published the first volume of his Presidential memoirs, A Promised Land. It’s a book that charms every bit as much as it surprises, revealing the former US president’s humanity, humility and humour.

As a best-selling author, and one whose book shows he knows how to tell a good story, reading recommendations from the erstwhile leader of the free world are worth paying attention to. If only to find out what catches his attention.

In a recent interview with Ezra Klein of the New York Times, Obama was asked to offer three reading recommendations. So, here they are.

1. The Overstory by Richard Powers

The first book Obama recommends is The Overstory by Richard Powers, which was published in 2018 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a year later. According to the publishers, Penguin Vintage, Margaret Atwood once said: “It's not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book.”

“It’s about trees and the relationship of humans to trees,” Obama told the New York Times. “And it’s not something I would have immediately thought of, but a friend gave it to me. And I started reading it, and it changed how I thought about the Earth. And it changed how I see things, and that’s always, for me, a mark of a book worth reading.”

The plot of The Overstory follows a diverse set of characters from different locations and even different points in history – in each of these lives, trees play a significant role as the author relates his own feelings of the importance of the natural world.

2. Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey

Writers are frequently advised to write what they know. That’s certainly true of the second of Obama’s selections – Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey. Subtitled A Daughter’s Memoir, the book was published in 2020, and in it Trethewey explores her life leading up to and in the aftermath of a pivotal and tragic event.

A New York Times review called it: “An exploration of a Black mother and daughter trying to get free in a land that conflates survival with freedom and womanhood with girlhood.”

Obama describes it as: “A meditation on race, and class, and grief, uplifting surprisingly, at the end of it – but just wrenching.”

Obama book recommendations 2021
Barack Obama recommended 2 books and 1 author in a recent interview with the New York Times.
Image: World Economic Forum

What is the World Economic Forum's Book Club?

The World Economic Forum launched its official Book Club on Facebook in April 2018. Readers worldwide are invited to join and discuss a variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction. It is a private Facebook group dedicated to discussing one book every month.

Each month, we announce a new book on our social media channels. We then publish an extract and begin a chapter-by-chapter discussion with group members. Selected comments and questions are sent to the author, who in return sends us a video response.

Unlike other book clubs, the group features the direct involvement of the authors, giving you - our global audience with members all around the globe - a chance to directly connect with some of the most influential thinkers and experts in the world.

We have featured authors such as Steven Pinker, Elif Shafak, Yuval Noah Harari, and Melinda Gates.

You can join the Book Club here.

Follow us on Twitter here.

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3. Obama’s author pick: Mark Twain

His third and final recommendation is not a book but an author, Mark Twain. “He’s that most essential of American writers,” Obama says.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, Twain’s early life revolved around the Mississippi river in the time before the abolition of slavery. Some of his early writings contained racially charged language and attitudes that many today would find intolerable. But by the time he reached middle age, Twain was a champion of civil rights, equality for women, and a passionate advocate of abolishing the enslavement of people.

“I actually caught up on some past readings of Mark Twain,” Obama told Klein in their interview. “There’s something about Twain that I wanted to revisit because he speaks a little bit of — he’s that most essential of American writers. And there’s his satiric eye and his actual outrage that sometimes gets buried under the comedy I thought was useful to revisit.”

Mark Twain Author books reading
Mark Twain wrote many seminal American novels including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

If you’re looking for more reading recommendations, join the World Economic Forum's Book Club. A new book is chosen every month, followed by a chapter-by-chapter discussion with group members.

Unlike other book clubs, the group features the direct involvement of the authors, giving members around the globe a chance to connect with some of the most influential thinkers and experts in the world.

You can follow the Book Club on Twitter here or on Instagram here.