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Barack Obama’s Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2019

19 from '19 — here's a rundown of Barack Obama's favorite nonfiction books from last year.
by Michael Benninger | Jan 17 2020

Barack Obama once remarked that “Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible, from complex word problems and the meaning of our history to scientific discovery and technological proficiency.” Those are words the former POTUS continues to live by, and each year he releases a list of his recommended reads.

Most recently, just days before the new year, Obama tweeted a list of his picks for the best books of 2019. Among the 38 titles he mentioned, half of them are acclaimed works of nonfiction, ranging in subject matter from sports to history, biology to poverty, and true crime to memoirs penned by his former colleagues.

Many of Barack Obama’s favorite books are among the thousands of titles in Blinkist’s library. You can open the app now to discover the biggest, brain-changing ideas in each of them. And if you want to work your way through the more of Barack Obama’s 2019 book list — but you aren’t sure where to begin — here’s a quick look at the 19 nonfiction books recommended by one of the world’s most admired men.

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

In this examination of the challenges awaiting us in our tech-centric future, author Shoshana Zuboff explains how today’s corporations possess an unprecedented amount of power, and their ultimate goal is to predict — and ultimately control — consumer behavior. Zuboff considers this “surveillance capitalism” as a global threat to democracy, freedom, and even our human nature, but she explains it’s not yet too late to prevent corporations from rewriting the rules of society.

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

This cautionary tale about corporate greed on a global scale reveals how one of the world’s largest empires was overtaken by a private company headquartered thousands of miles away. By detailing the evolution of the East India Company — from its beginnings as a conventional trading corporation to its heights as a colonial power that controlled nearly all of India — author William Dalrymple underscores the threat that unregulated oligarchies still pose today.

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

Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird won’t want to skip this true story about Harper Lee’s time spent studying the case of a small-town preacher accused of killing five of his family members in the 1970s. Journalist Casey Cep retraces Lee’s steps during the famed author’s investigation of the murder she intended to adapt into a true-crime classic, offering an insightful look at one of the 20th century’s most treasured writers and her struggles with success.

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

Dispelling the notion that Native Americans have had little impact on history since the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, this counter-narrative about the indigenous people’s role in the 20th and 21st centuries highlights how, thanks to their resourcefulness and adaptability, members of this community have preserved their way of life while continuing to make valuable contributions to society.

5. How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

In today’s capitalistic society, many of us feel as if we’re living under constant pressure to be productive at all times. But, as author Jenny Odell explains to readers, our attention is the most valuable asset we have, and it’s high time we forget about the traditional concept of productivity and instead embrace other forms of action to benefit the environment and get humanity back on a prosperous path.

6. The Yellow House: A Memoir by Sarah M. Broom

Set in New Orleans and spanning 100 years of a family’s history, this memoir about the long-lasting influence of a childhood home details the author’s experiences growing up in the 1980s as one of 12 children to a widowed mother. With commentary on race, class, and inequality, this is the story of a mother’s struggle to provide for her family and a daughter’s struggle to escape the pull of her home — even after it was obliterated by Hurricane Katrina.

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

In this deep-dive into one of the darkest and most divisive chapters in Irish history, the leader of a left-wing political party instructs an IRA volunteer to murder a Northern Irish woman suspected of being a British spy. Author Patrick Keefe uses this notorious killing — and its consequences — as the starting point for a tale about a society torn apart by a violent guerrilla war during a time of fear and paranoia that no one wanted to talk about.

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

In many ways, we’re shaped by the incentives presented to us, leading us to spend our lives focusing on ourselves and our individual achievements. But, as author Jia Tolentino reveals, that perspective is merely an illusion. In this collection of nine essays, Tolentino exposes the forces that warp our vision while taking readers on an enlightening adventure through the self-delusion that underlies our lives.

9. A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney’s Story from the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule by Jim Rooney

In this biography about Dan Rooney, one of the most influential sports executives of the 20th century, author Jim Rooney paints a picture of his father, highlighting the man’s remarkable achievements both on and off the field. By conveying his father’s stoic nature and commitment to his values, Jim Rooney reinforces the importance of focusing on the long game and working well with others.

10. The Sixth Man: A Memoir by Andre Iguodala

This memoir by the Golden State Warriors’ Andre Iguodala details the athlete’s exploits on the basketball court and beyond, including his philanthropy, his success as an investor, and his contributions to race relations in America. The Sixth Man traces Andre’s journey from his childhood in Illinois to the Bay Area he calls home today, explaining what motivates an athlete to continue striving for more once they’ve already achieved the pinnacle of their career.

11. The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir by Samantha Power

Penned by a former UN Ambassador and Pulitzer Prize-winning human rights advocate, this memoir recounts Samantha Power’s journey from an immigrant to a war correspondent to a presidential cabinet official. Through a tale about how the power of idealism and determination can make a difference, Power reminds readers that the United States still has the power to be a shining beacon in the world, but only if the country acts with dignity.

12. Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward by Valerie Jarrett

Written by a long-time adviser and confidante to Michelle and Barack Obama, this account of Valerie Jarrett’s eight years working in the White House reveals what was like working with the First Family in Oval Office, Air Force One, and everywhere in between. Finding My Voice offers an intimate perspective on the Obama administration and Jarrett’s role as one of the most visible and influential African-American women of the 21st century.

13. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh

In this memoir, author Sarah Smarsh, a fifth-generation Kansas farmer born to a long line of teenage mothers, offers a unique look at the lives of poor and working-class families living in America’s heartland. Smarsh paints a picture of what life was like growing up on a farm 30 miles west of Wichita, highlighting the ways in which money shapes our country and challenging readers to look more closely at the division between classes.

14. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Written by Hope Jahren, an American geochemist, geobiologist, and professor, this memoir serves as a love letter to plantlife and a celebration of the passion and curiosity that drives scientists. Jahren transports readers back to her childhood in Minnesota, where she spent endless hours playing in the sanctuary of her father’s college laboratory, and she details the course of her career, demonstrating that nothing is impossible when you love what you do.

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

Providing insight into the many dimensions of poverty, this memoir tells the story of a young woman whose plans of escaping her hometown to chase her dreams abruptly ended when a romantic fling resulted in an unexpected pregnancy. As a low-income single mother, author Stephanie Land reveals what it was like raising a daughter while working as a maid, and she also exposes the dark side of the upper-middle class and what it’s like to work for them.

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

With a focus on the social and economic issues women and girls face on a daily basis, philanthropist Melinda Gates shares her journey to finding her voice, achieving equality in her marriage, and becoming an advocate for women everywhere. She urges today’s mothers, wives, and singles to drive progress in their homes, workplaces, and communities, arguing that empowered women play a pivotal role in transforming societies.

17. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

From 1915 to 1970, nearly six million black Americans changed the face of the country in a massive exodus not mentioned in many history books. Through interviews and official records, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson draws parallels between this migration and others throughout history, charting the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South in hopes of a better life in America’s northern and western cities.

18. Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For by Susan Rice

By recalling pivotal moments from her time spent on the frontlines of American diplomacy and foreign policy, former National Security Advisor and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice reveals her personal story, detailing the family struggles and ancestral legacies she battled with and offering an insider’s account of some of the most complex issues the United States has confronted in recent history.

19. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

The advent of the internet, search engines, and smartphones has given us instant access to the world’s knowledge — but at what cost? This examination of modern technology’s cultural consequences posits whether the internet is negatively affecting our intellects, and, specifically, whether the data and devices in our lives are diminishing our ability to concentrate and think critically.

Blinkist makes it easy to explore several of Barack Obama’s favorite books from 2019. So now that you know a bit about each of these titles, which one will you decide to read first?

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