This month, for a fourth summer, President Barack Obama will vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. What will he read during his down time? That, too, has become something of a summer ritual. On his two most recent trips, Mr. Obama has made a pilgrimage to the Bunch of Grapes bookstore to pick up some books, the names of which, inevitably, find their way into the media, where they are dissected and debated by his allies and critics alike. Mr. Obama’s summer choices have included Daniel Woodrell’s The Bayou Trilogy and Ward Just’s Rodin’s Debutante in 2011 and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in 2010.
For authors, the presidential imprimatur provides priceless publicity. Freedom, in particular, caught a wave. At the time of Mr. Obama’s visit to Martha’s Vineyard in 2010, the novel had yet to be officially released, but Mr. Obama obtained an early copy from the store, adding to the book’s cachet and, as Politico’s Karin Tanabe wrote, setting the “Web atwitter.” The book shot up the best-seller lists. Only Oprah, it seems, provides a bigger sales bump.
Mr. Franzen liked the attention, to be sure, but he also wondered if reading fiction was the best use of presidential time. As he told an audience at the Hay Festival in Colombia: “[W]hen I heard he was reading ‘Freedom’ I thought, ‘Why are you reading a novel? There are important things to be doing!’” Mr. Obama is far from the most voracious presidential reader. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were among the best-read people on the continent in their day. Abraham Lincoln read a great deal as a youth, albeit from a limited library, and his reading helped to propel him from his obscure origins.
Teddy Roosevelt was also addicted to the printed word, observing that “reading with me is a disease.” He could polish off two or three books a day even while serving as president, and woe betide the bore who failed to hold the president’s attention in a White House meeting. If not engaged by his interlocutor, Roosevelt was prone to pick up a book and start reading.
Among modern presidential readers, Harry Truman ranks near the top. Despite being the last president not to have attended college, he was a tremendous autodidact, especially in history. He once said that “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” His daughter Margaret quipped that, if the world were about to end, Truman would “not look up until he got to the bottom of the page he was reading.”
In recent years, nonstop coverage of the White House has led reporters to pay careful attention to presidential vacation reading. The shelves of the California ranch house where Ronald Reagan took his holidays were filled with books, from Westerns to works of conservative thought. George H.W. Bush, widely seen as a nonreader, recounted that his 1991 vacation plans included “a good deal of tennis, a good deal of horseshoes, a good deal of fishing, a good deal of running—and some reading. I have to throw that in there for the intellectuals out there.”
Bill Clinton read so much on vacation and during the rest of the year that the journalist Elizabeth Renzetti joked, “[R]emember Bill Clinton saying that Max Weber was his summer reading? No wonder college girls threw themselves at him.” George W. Bush was a more serious reader than his cowboy image suggested. His vacation reading one summer included Salt by Mark Kurlansky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky and The Great Influenza by John Barry. The Barry book in particular left a strong imprint on Mr. Bush. After reading it, he pushed his administration to develop a comprehensive influenza plan.
Political theatrics aside, the modern presidency is an enormously taxing position, and we have to be realistic about how much reading a president can accomplish in August or any other month. Mr. Obama himself cast doubt on his reputation as a reader when he admitted that, as president, “you have very little chance to really read. I basically floss my teeth and watch SportsCenter.”
At another point, in explaining that he probably wouldn’t read Sarah Palin autobiography, Mr. Obama told CNN’s Ed Henry, “I don’t get a chance to read things other than briefing books very often these days anyway.” It was a deft evasion—but also a revealing window into the competing priorities that all presidents face, even the bookish ones.