Here is a list of nonfiction books that played a significant role in shaping Barack Obama’s character:
The Souls of Black Folk by Web Du Bois
The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, offers more than a polemic against the United States during that era of American history. Writer W. E. B. Du Bois delivers a series of essays on the plight of African Americans during a tumultuous time of discrimination. Considered one of the ﬁrst sociological works in America, many of its key themes resonate even today. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, where a black youth was shot based on his appearance, then President Barack Obama delivered a speech evoking Du Bois. Obama admitted to being followed by security in department stores and having cars locked when nearing them. This echoes the idea of “double consciousness” from Du Bois’ work. It refers to the psychological challenge of seeing oneself through the eyes of an oppressive society. Despite being over 100 years old, the ideas found in The Souls of Black Folk are prevalent today, even to the former United States commander-in-chief.
Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Published in his 1841 collection, Essays: First Series , this seminal work by American philosopher and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, urges individuals to shun conformity and consistency — to believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius. He encourages Americans to follow their will, and not look towards Europe. Emerson, a member of the transcendental movement, believed people were naturally good and had limitless potential. His lectures and writings laid the foundation for American idealism. U.S. President Barack Obama is a fan of Emerson’s philosophy. He referred to the importance of self-reliance in his 2008 election victory speech, and quoted this essay — a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds — at a press conference in 2015. When Penguin Books published a small book containing Obama’s 2008 Inaugural Address, they included Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and this essay — an ode to the thinkers who shaped his worldview.
The Best And The Brightest by David Halberstam
David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest is an account of how the Vietnam War started. The author documents the slew of academics and so-called experts that surrounded John F. Kennedy and their hubris in giving misguided advice. Also salient is their extraordinary ignorance of history. Halberstam described their policies as “brilliant but defying common sense” and wrote extensively about going against the advice of seasoned U.S. Department of State employees. The title of this timely and important book may have come from a line by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his work “To Jane: The Invitation” (1822): Best and brightest, come away! This tome also counts amongst President Obama’s most inﬂuential and favourite books of all time!
H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald
H is for Hawk is a memoir by British author Helen Macdonald, the winner of the Samuel Johnson and Costa Book of the Year award in 2014. It also happens to be on U.S. President Barack Obama’s must-read list. Macdonald tells the story of the year she spent training Mable, her goshawk that she adopted after the loss of her father, Alisdair Macdonald, in 2007. Just like readers, Obama was captivated by her beautiful and eloquent interpretations of the meaning of life within every sentence. The hawk was everything she wanted to be: “Solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.” While she wanted to retreat from the rest of the world, her training forced her to go outside and it reminded her that there can be happiness in life. Reading this book near the end of his Presidency, Obama could surely appreciate the feelings shared between the pages while reﬂecting on his own life: as both his parents passed away before they could witness his achievements as the 44th President.