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18 Barack Obama Book Recommendations – Must Read

Barack Obama recommends so many books that it can be tough to keep up! Here are 18 titles in the Blinkist library that have the Presidential stamp of approval.
by Tania Strauss | Jul 12 2022
obama graffiti imageBarack Obama’s reading lists have become a cultural flashpoint since he began releasing them during his presidency. He’s always been known as a big reader, with an intelligent and eclectic taste that covers everything from serious academic history to the latest fiction. So it’s not surprising that an Obama recommendation – or even just the hint that the former president might possibly be reading a certain book – can turn it into an instant bestseller. 

In the last several years, Obama’s informal recommendations have evolved into an annual institution with the release of his year-end lists – which, in addition to books, cover his favorite film and music of the previous year.  Though he occasionally mentions older books that he’s just recently read, the lists often highlight new work and can give a boost to first-time or little-known authors who are fortunate enough to make the cut. 

So to further his mission of helping you discover the best new books,  we’ve assembled 18 Barack Obama book recommendations that have been published since 2018… all of which you can find in the Blinkist library:

1. How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith

How the Word is Passed is an American travelogue that traces the history of slavery, and its repercussions through the president’s day, by focusing on stories from nine locations. Smith, a respected journalist, academic, and poet, visits plantations, prisons, and Juneteenth celebrations from Virginia to Texas to New York City. The observations and interviews from his travels, combined with his blend of academic expertise and personal reflection, result in an unusually rich and complex exploration of one of the most difficult aspects of American society.


2. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson


Dubbed “an instant American classic” in this glowing New York Times review, Caste makes the case that American society should be understood as a race-based caste system, similar to those found in India and pre-WWII Germany. While the history of America’s brutal racial hierarchy can be tough to read, exploring how caste systems are created and perpetuated can help us begin to break them down.


3. The Splendid And the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile is a meticulous history of Winston Churchill’s first year as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – a year that included the Blitz, the rescue at Dunkirk, and the surrender of France to the Nazis. Despite these overwhelming hardships, Churchill led his country through this harrowing time with a combination of charisma and resolve that would cement his massive (if occasionally controversial) legacy.


4. Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker


Additionally praised by Oprah as “a riveting true story of an American family that reads like a medical detective journey,” Hidden Valley Road chronicles the story of the Galvin family: twelve children, six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Despite the Galvins’ difficult and often heartbreaking journey, their case illuminated the genetic origins of much mental illness, and how it can be effectively treated.


5. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff

Digital companies such as Facebook and Amazon are tracking your actions and selling your personal data to advertisers – with the goal of not only predicting, but controlling human behavior for the sake of profit. Zuboff argues that this sort of interference has devastating consequences for society, democracy, and even human nature that we are just beginning to understand – but that we may still be able to prevent.


6. The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple


In this vivid history of the East India Company, colonialism and capitalism collide with devastating consequences. At its height in the 1700s, what was supposed to be a traditional trading company became the colonial ruler of the Indian subcontinent – complete with its own standing army. This story of how a private corporation upended an entire region of 200 million people, and nearly took control of the entire British Empire, is a cautionary tale about unregulated corporate greed that is still relevant today.


7. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep


Part true-crime thriller and part literary biography, Furious Hours traces celebrated author Harper Lee’s investigation into Reverend Willie Maxwell, who was accused of killing five of his family members in the 1970s. Lee researched the case for years in the hopes of turning it into a true-crime book herself, but she proved unable to. By retracing Lee’s steps and digging deep into Maxwell’s case, Cep has realized Lee’s dream for her – and written a fascinating portrait of a beloved author and her struggles with her art.


8. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer

Beginning with the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, in which the U.S. Army slaughtered nearly 300 Lakota people, Treuer traces the history of indigenous people in America and their contributions to society in the 20th and 21st centuries. Rather than fading into irrelevance and obscurity, as is often perceived as the case, Native Americans have preserved their traditions while making a profound impact on the country. 


9. How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

In How to do Nothing, author Jenny Odell takes aim at the contemporary culture of constant productivity: countless things vie for our attention, and we’re doing too much at the expense of doing anything well – let alone happily. Odell argues that the solution is to do nothing at all, or at least to take a step back and rest. By doing so, we can start to see what really is worth our attention, and take action to build a better life for ourselves and a better world for others.


10. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe 


In this book that blends history and true crime, journalist Keefe uses the story of a single murder to tell the broader history of Northern Ireland at the height of the sectarian struggle known as The Troubles. The book was widely praised for being as engrossing and propulsive as a novel while giving rigorous attention to the legacy of British colonialism and the decades of terrorism and violence that grew from it.


11. Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino

Trick Mirror was a cultural phenomenon before Barack Obama said anything about it – Tolentino, a New Yorker staffer, has been writing about contemporary and millennial culture to great acclaim for years. This thoughtful collection of essays weaves stories from her own life with an exploration of self-image and moral ambivalence in the internet era. It was a bestseller from the moment of publication and Tolentino was greeted with huge lines and standing-room-only crowds at readings all over America.


12. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Laird

Maid is a memoir about a single mother who worked as a maid to support her young daughter after her dreams of leaving her hometown were dashed by an unexpected pregnancy. Laird’s book effectively combines her deeply personal story with a broader look at poverty and social class. Maid was very popular when it was published and was recently adapted into a well-received Netflix miniseries.


13. The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates

Part memoir and part manifesto, The Moment of Lift tells the story of Melinda Gates’s charitable efforts to help women around the world. She combines a first-person account of her own life and works with the stories of others, to explore everything from equality in marriage to economic empowerment. She makes a compelling argument that gender equality is the key to building healthy, prosperous societies, as well as a better world for everyone. 

14. Solitary by Albert Woodfox

Solitary tells the story of how Albert Woodfox spent four decades in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola prison, all because he was framed for a murder he didn’t commit. In this memoir, which won numerous awards, Woodfox recounts the brutality he faced and how he managed to endure – and emerge from – inhumane conditions that would have broken most people beyond repair. Harrowing, but ultimately hopeful, the book is a testament to the human spirit and a call to arms about the cruelties and inequalities embedded in the criminal justice system.


15. Becoming by Michelle Obama


Of course, Barack Obama couldn’t make a 2018 book list without mentioning his wife, whose memoir was published that year. She’s had a remarkable life by any measure, and this memoir by America’s beloved former First Lady was pretty much guaranteed to be a hit. But rather than relying on her own celebrity to do the work, in Becoming, Obama offers an honest and insightful account of the remarkable trajectory of her life – from her working-class roots in Chicago to her time in the White House. It was a challenging journey that she never expected to make, but managed very much on her own terms.


16. Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

This widely-acclaimed memoir was featured on several year-end lists when it was published in 2018. It charts the author’s fraught journey from an abusive, fundamentalist Mormon upbringing to Cambridge University, where she received her Ph.D.  Forbidden from attending school as a girl, Westover ran away from her rural home when she was sixteen and charted a course that would take her far beyond her repressive roots – but that cost her her family in the process. This book was also mentioned as a favorite of his wife Michelle Obama, who speaks about her reading much less often.


17. How Democracies Die: and How We Can Save Ours by Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

How Democracies Die explores how democracies function and, by extension, how their institutions can be subverted by leaders with authoritarian aims. The authors cite many historical examples, including those in Russia and Latin America, to show how democracy can give way to dictatorship. They also spend time on the presidency of Donald Trump and describe a series of possible scenarios that American politics could follow in his wake.


18. The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes

Another recommendation that Obama kept in the family, so to speak, The World as It Is is an up-close-and-personal memoir of his presidency written by a former staffer and friend. Ben Rhodes began as a speechwriter for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and ultimately rose to a National Security role, giving him a front-row seat to nearly a decade of highs, lows, tragedies, and triumphs – ending with the inauguration of Donald Trump as Obama’s successor.



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