6 of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books from 2019 to Add to Your TBR List

updated Jan 6, 2020
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Credit: Evan El-Amin

Just when you think you’ve set your reading goals for 2020, Barack Obama has to release his favorites of 2019 and your shelf suddenly rearranges. The former president has made a tradition out of sharing his reading lists, and it’s worth noting that he does often overlap with many of the other “best books” lists that flood our feeds every year. That being said, he does have good taste (judged by how his taste overlaps with mine, and we both loved “Educated“), so I’ve combed through his picks and narrowed down his list to just the reads I can vouch for (though I will say, his entire list looks solid).

“How to Do Nothing”

“Resisting the attention economy” is easier said than done, but Odell’s incredibly thought-provoking manifesto (I think I can call it a manifesto) will make you rethink how you spend your attention, which she argues is our most precious resource. Refreshingly, Odell’s answer to finding focus isn’t as simple as “turn off your phone.” She goes much deeper than that, which is probably why a sophisticated reader like Obama recognized its brilliance.

“Normal People”

I am here to say: Believe me, believe Obama, and believe the hype. This beautiful romance is exactly as heartbreaking and consuming as everyone says, and Rooney’s writing is in a league of its own. My best description of this book is highly personal, but if you’ll get it, you’ll get it: It’s like reading what you feel when you watch “When Harry Met Sally,” without the cliche New Year’s Eve ending.

“Trick Mirror”

If you appreciate Tolentino’s sharp critiques of everything from Instagram Face to athleisure, then you’ll love her collection of essays, which is essentially what her New Yorker essays could be if there were no word counts. (That is to say, occasionally they’re a little long). I’d love to know which essay Obama loved the most—personally, I read, and re-read, Tolentino’s exploration of how our culture has allowed scammers to rise and thrive. 

“Girl, Woman, Other”

I was so pleased to see that Mr. Obama and I agreed on Evaristo’s latest. I’m a fan of novels that switch perspective, and Evaristo does it brilliantly: she follows more than a dozen Black British women whose identities, ages, passions are all wildly different, and yet the stories spiral and converge on each other to prove that the world is much smaller than we realize. It’s written almost like poetry, with such strong voice and rhythm that makes it a pleasure to read.

“The Yellow House”

This is my book club’s pick this month, and though it is a memoir, it reads more like part-fiction, part-New Orleans-lore, part-account of Hurricane Katrina, and part-exploration of how you build—and re-build—a city and a home from scratch. [Editor’s Note: Check out Sarah’s NOLA House Tour from last year.]

“Pachinko”

I will not chastise the former leader for waiting until 2019 to read this masterpiece, but I will applaud him for including it in his 2019 list even though it was technically published in 2017. It’s a good reminder that there are hundreds of fantastic books that come out every year, and even world leaders get behind on their must-read lists. “Pachinko” is the story of four generations of a Korean family living in Japan during the time of Japanese colonization; at its root, it’s a story of incredibly strong familial bonds, resilience in the face of discrimination, and the ways our choices reverberate throughout generations.

For Obama’s unabridged list, without my commentary, see below: