A Guide to Over-Analyzing Obama's Summer Reading List

One of Washington's favorite annual games

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Obama's yearly summer reading choices have "become something of an unputdownable" story themselves, in the words of Politico, which reports that "White House observers waited on tenterhooks overnight to see which books Obama bought during a vacation stop at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven on Friday." Insiders want to know: what is he reading? Do his choices offer insight into the inner turmoil of our often inscrutable president? And if so, what insight?

First, the reading choices themselves: "Saturday's pool reports" revealed he purchased two books for himself: The Bayou Trilogy, a collection by Daniel Woodrell (author of Winter's Bone), and Ward Just's Rodin's Debutante (set in Chicago). He added that to the books he carried with him, which include two novels and a history, according to the Los Angeles Times: Abraham Verghese's bestseller Cutting for Stone, David Grossman's story of a family in Israel, To the End of the Land, which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction, and 2010 NBCC nonfiction winner The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson.

There you have it. Now let's make the most of this.

Is he escaping reality? Only The Warmth of Other Suns, which describes America's migration of blacks from the South, is nonfiction. Reuters hypothesizes that the President, "perhaps seeking a break from harsh reality after a tough summer battling the economy and Republicans in Congress, has picked a summer reading list that is long on fiction."  Fox News' Greta Van Susteren thinks this is irresponsibility in the extreme. She writes in a blog post:

I read the headline below in the NYT and I thought, ‘what dope at the White House let the President’s reading list get out?’  That headline alone is ammunition for his political enemies….while the country’s economy gyrates with uncertainty, our leader is reading ‘fiction.’  Fiction? You know that could end up in an ad from the RNC. Of course he can read whatever he wants and I don’t care what he reads — but simply from a tactical, and political view point you wonder who is doing the President’s p/r...

You can take any reading list of any President and make it into something unflattering politically…. so why release it?  I would not have.  Would you?

Are there hidden messages? Ward Just's Rodin's Debutante has a character who becomes politically conscious after moving to a rough neighborhood on Chicago's south side, notably, according to Bill Marler, "echoing Obama's time there as a community organizer before he entered politics." But the Village Voice, getting in the full over-analysis spirit, suggests: "Cabal of influential Chicago locals, huh? This is an ACORN handbook!"

Is he trying to charm voters? Maybe this is why the list was released! The list is populated with award winners, but The Bayou Trilogy is crime fiction, full of with "rednecks and swamp rats." Is he trying to seem a little less ivory tower? The Village Voice suggests, perhaps: "Obama, feeling he is losing the swamp rat vote, desperately searches Woodrell's collection for advice on how to win back their trust. It's a waste of time, however, as nothing but live bait will convince them at the polls." Or maybe he has a different strategy in mind. "The Chicago Tribune described the novels as 'really cool,' which seems fitting for a president —and candidate —who needs to come across as 'cool' to young voters."

Why is he bored enough to read? "Last year, the president purchased Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, Tinkers, by Paul Harding and A Few Corrections by Brad Leithauser," according to Politico. So what is with the five books this year? Doesn't he have enough to worry about? The Boston Globe suggests that the President "seems to be in search of drama, passion and intrigue -- at least in his reading material." Doesn't he have enough excitement? And CNN adds, "For someone sometimes called 'no drama Obama,' Barack Obama sure has a lot of it on his summer reading list."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.