A major book prize announced its list of notables in the last week of July.
Vigilant book watchers are probably thinking of the Booker Prize, first established in 1969 for the best book written in English by someone from the United Kingdom or Ireland, and then expanded to include any English-language novel in 2014, making way for some of the kingdom’s former colonists.
Those colonists on our side of the pond are well-represented on the announced longlist, including Percival Everett for his masterful “The Trees,” “Booth” by Karen Joy Fowler, and “Oh William!” by Elizabeth Strout.
But no, this is not the prize I’m thinking of because there was a much bigger prize announced to social media almost simultaneously. That prize is called “Barack Obama’s Summer Reading List.”
OK, technically former President Barack Obama posting the books he’s reading this summer to the internet isn’t a book prize, but judging from the attention and reception of his list versus the Booker Prize announcement, it is a much, much bigger deal.
On Twitter, Obama’s announcement has received more than 8,100 retweets and at least 63,000 likes. The Booker Prize announcement received more than 800 retweets and more than 1,800 likes.
Now, this is primarily reflective of the far superior reach of Obama’s online presence to that of the Booker Prize organization, but that’s part of the point. The Booker Prize is perhaps the second most prestigious prize in the world, behind only the Nobel Prize, and yet, if you asked the average author if they’d rather be shortlisted for the Booker Prize or tapped by Barack Obama for his summer reading list, I bet a decent number would take the nod from Obama.
I know I would, at least.
This got me wondering why, exactly? What makes the ex-president’s sharing of what he’s had on his nightstand or carried in his briefcase as he does what ex-presidents do seem so special?
Part of it is that Obama has a well-earned reputation as a person of taste and discernment when it comes to literary matters. I can affirm this as a full five of his 14 selections have also been on my reading list within the last 12 months, and two more are on my nightstand.
I think it’s also meaningful that Obama seems to embrace a range of genres, with a good dose of literary fiction, but also a John le Carré novel and S.A. Cosby’s gritty neo-noir.
The full list:
“Sea of Tranquility” by Emily St. John Mandel
“Why We’re Polarized” by Ezra Klein
“The Candy House” by Jennifer Egan
“A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance” by Hanif Abdurraqib
“To Paradise” by Hanya Yanagihara
“Silverview” by John le Carré
“Black Cake” by Charmaine Wilkerson
“The Family Chao” by Lan Samantha Chang
“Velvet Was the Night” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“Mouth to Mouth” by Antoine Wilson
“The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure” by Yascha Mounk
“The School for Good Mothers” by Jessamine Chan
“Razorblade Tears” by S.A. Cosby
“Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks” by Chris Herring
My only disappointment in the president’s list is his rather milquetoast taste in political books by Ezra Klein and Yascha Mounk, books that flatter, rather than question the president’s worldview. Maybe he, and the rest of us, would benefit from a viewpoint not so rooted in the mainstream?
I’d love to see him embracing something from the far more radical and challenging Haymarket Books (Chicago’s own), perhaps “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)” by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò.
I don’t know what a mention from Obama does for book sales, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s at least Oprah-ish, and all with just a simple social media graphic, no book club, no TV show, no nothing.
Though, now that I think about it, Barack’s Book Club has a nice ring to it.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read
1. “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” by Malinda Lo
2. “True Biz” by Sara Novic
3. “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” by Carol Rifka Brunt
4. “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai
5. “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney
— Barb T., Nashville, Tennessee
This book is sort of a lot to handle, but I think Barb is up to it, “My Education” by Susan Choi.
1. “Sparring Partners” by John Grisham
2. “The Fifth Witness” by Michael Connelly
3. “The Cold Cold Ground” by Adrian McKinty
4. “Native Tongue” by Carl Hiaasen
5. “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” by David Simon
— William P., Charlotte, North Carolina
An obvious orientation toward crime books, which I’m going to respect, and suggest one with powerful atmospherics and a slow burn, “The Searcher” by Tana French.
1. “Stoner” by John Edward Williams
2. “Augustus” by John Edward Williams
3. “The Angel of Rome” by Jess Walter
4. “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean
5. “Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes
— Nelson R., Chicago
I think “Matterhorn” is a great novel about the experience of Vietnam from the side of the American soldier. I think Nelson might be interested in a novel about the flip side of the war, the experience of the Vietnamese, as portrayed in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer.”
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org.