Richard Nixon, of all people, put it best. "As you know, I kind of like to read books," he remarked during what must be the most extraordinary address ever made by an American president, delivered to the assembled White House staff on the morning of 9 August 1974, the day after he announced he was resigning. It was vintage Nixon, simultaneously maudlin, devious and awkward, yet excruciatingly personal and painful.
Nixon uttered those words apropos of a line from a book by his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt about the "man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood" that he had quoted in his televised speech to the nation the night before. But he might have been speaking for almost every occupant of the Oval Office. From the very birth of the United States, presidents have been avid readers – and what they read speaks volumes (pardon the pun) not only about themselves, but how they want the world to see them.
Some bizarre proof of this came only last week, when it emerged that George Washington – yes, the George who as every American schoolchild knows, could not tell a lie – had failed to return a couple of books he had taken out from a Manhattan library in December 1789, when New York was serving as capital of the US. The books themselves, a treatise on international relations called The Law of Nations and volume 12 of a collection of transcripts of House of Commons debates of that era, can hardly have been riveting stuff.
But for whatever reason, Washington hung on to them. In the handwritten library ledger, the borrower is described simply as "President" and the space in the return date column is empty. Sure enough, when a curator came across the original debates volumes the other day, number 12 was missing. The current librarian, a generous soul, has agreed to waive the accumulated late fees that adjusted for inflation would now total some $300,000 (£195,000).
Washington was largely self-educated, in contrast to his immediate successors. Harvard man John Adams, the second president, owned over 3,500 books – but his collection paled beside the one of polymath Thomas Jefferson, which the third president donated in 1815 to form the basis of the new Library of Congress, after the British had burned the original place down three years earlier. James Buchanan, who fiddled as the fires of civil war were about to burst into flame, might have been the worst of all US presidents, but he was a voracious reader. So too was his successor Abraham Lincoln, generally reckoned the greatest of all presidents. Like Washington, Lincoln was essentially self-educated. But he used what he had learnt from books to compose some of the greatest speeches in human history.
And so it has continued. Over the years, books have become part of the furniture of a presidency. Teddy Roosevelt reputedly read a book a day when he was busy, and two or three when he had time on his hands. Nixon was a huge fan of Tolstoy, while Jimmy Carter even took speed-reading classes to boost his intake. Like Lincoln, Carter was a prolific – if less gifted – writer too, with 23 books and counting.
Of the last few presidents, Bill Clinton probably came closest to Roosevelt. Clinton's tastes were broad, and he regularly kept several books on the go at once. Under Clinton, too, books became a calculated part of the presidential image – so much so that by 1999, the White House was releasing a "Top Ten" list of Bill's reading matter for his summer holiday. That year's selection contained several thrillers, a biography, a study on the far-right press, plus an historical novel about the emperor Hadrian, all deliberately buffing the image of Clinton as a leader of huge intellectual capacity and vast and varied interests, but with the common touch as well (which in fact is absolutely true).
Presidential endorsements can boost sales too. Ian Fleming was not especially popular in the US – but that changed when JFK let it be known that From Russia with Love was one of his favourite books. It didn't do any harm to mystery writer Walter Mosley's sales either, when Clinton declared himself a fan.
These days, Barack Obama has the same effect; last year Obama let slip he was reading Netherland, Joseph O'Neill's novel about life, love and cricket in post 9/11 New York, and sales promptly jumped 40 per cent. But whether the same happened to Albert Camus' L'Etranger after it emerged, to universal amazement, that George W Bush had read that masterpiece of French existentialism in 2006 is another matter.
The younger Bush is the most baffling presidential reader of all. During his first term, the White House did little to discourage the notion that all he liked was the Bible and baseball statistics. But as his approval ratings tumbled, Bush received an intellectual makeover. Suddenly we were told he devoured history and political biographies. That part was understandable enough. Nothing prepares you for the presidency, and many men who have held the loneliest job in the world have read books to discover how other leaders, from Caesar to Churchill, have coped with crisis. But there was more.
According to his former éminence grise Karl Rove, Bush regularly read between 40 and 50 books a year, peaking at 95 in 2006, when Rove and Bush competed to see who could read the most. Rove apparently won, with 110. The liberal press was disbelieving and scathing, but Rove stuck to his guns: "In the 35 years I've known George Bush, he always had a book near by."
Such doubts, of course, do not extend to Obama (even though he's already overtaken Bush in time spent on the golf course). It goes without saying that this cerebral intellectual and elegant writer is an avid reader too. Obama may be trying to model his presidency on Teddy Roosevelt or Lincoln – but when it comes to reading, look no further than one Richard Milhous Nixon.