As each year concludes, the former president shares his curated list of pop culture recommendations, which also encompasses music and film, and provides inspiration for many.
It’s no secret that Obama is a voracious reader, so the 13 titles, which he announced on Twitter and Instagram, are an electric range of historical fiction, memoir and investigative non-fiction, and cover everything from race and family to poverty and immigration.
In the social media post, he noted that while “Art always sustains and nourishes the soul”, for him “storytelling felt especially urgent during this pandemic year – a way to connect even when we were cooped up”.
The books he has selected are predominately written by American authors, and all those recommended have had “left a lasting impression” on Obama.
So as we enter 2022, if you’re looking for inspiration for your reading list, we’ve rounded up Barack Obama’s recommendations to help you decide which one to read first. If the former president can get through a pile as big as this, so can you.
‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff, published by Cornerstone
Groff was a finalist in the National Book Award for this historical novel. Set in the 12th century, Matrix tells the story of a 17-year-old girl named Maire de France who is cast out from the French court and is sent to an impoverished abbey to join an English convent. Using her strong will and determination, she becomes a prioress. It’s said to be a dazzling work of literature that demonstrates the power of womanhood.
‘How the Word Is Passed’ by Clint Smith, published by Little, Brown Book Group
In this well-researched non-fiction title, Smith explores the way America commemorates itself. It takes readers on a journey by examining prominent monuments and landmarks, offering an intergenerational story of how slavery is central to shaping America’s history. Smith also touches on his own experiences of the way slavery is understood today.
‘The Final Revival of Opal & Nev’ by Dawnie Walton, published by Quercus
This debut oral-historical book follows a cult band in the early Seventies in New York. Walton paints a portrait of the era that is rich in atmosphere and tells the story of Opal – a fiercely independent young woman – who is finding her niche in the creative scene and is asked to join a rock duo with Nev.
‘The Lincoln Highway’ by Amor Towles, published by Cornerstone
Another historical novel, but this time set in the Fifties. The book starts with Emmett Watson who is being driven home by the warden of a juvenile work farm where he has served a year for involuntary manslaughter. When the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that his two friends hid in the car. Together they hatch a plan for their future, with the book following their 10-day entertaining road trip.
‘Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in New York City’ by Andrea Elliott, published by Cornerstone
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Elliott’s first book is based on years of reporting and investigations. Invisible Child follows eight years of the life of Dasani Coates in this true story. At the start of the book, Dasani is 11 years old and is living in a single room in Brooklyn homeless shelter with her mother, stepfather, and seven siblings. With a matter of fact tone, Elliott is said to successfully provide a chronicle of the life and trials Dasani and her family face. It’s a story that of course grapples with poverty, but also family bond, love and inequality. A book you’re unlikely to forget.
‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead, published by Fleet
This title featured in The Independent’s round-up of the new books to read, which noted that it’s set in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is a thriller full of “compelling characters”. It is “fast-paced and fun – with the more serious background of racism and the 1964 Harlem riots”.
‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ by Anthony Doerr, published by Fourth Estate
This 600+ page book was noted as a “literary feat” when it was reviewed on The Independent. Cloud Cuckoo Land tells of the lives of five characters – that within themselves are “sub-stories” – each of them are connected by a copy of a mysterious ancient text.
‘These Precious Days’ by Ann Patchett, published by Bloomsbury
Patchett shares this raw and honest memoir, reflecting on her failures, successes, families and friendships in a sharp and profound way. These Precious Days is said to be equal part sad and heartwarming, providing a wonderful snipped into the author’s life. Seemingly the perfect read to cheer up a dreary January.
‘Crying in H Mart’ by Michelle Zauner, published by Pan Macmillan
Another memoir favourite by Obama, this time written by Michelle Zaune, a singer and guitarist in the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast. In this debut, Zaune charts her life with honesty and frankness. She delves into memories and experiences of family, the ugly side of grief, and food. The pages provide raw emotion and wisdom.
‘Aftershocks: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Identity’ by Nadia Owusu, published by Hodder & Stoughton
This deeply moving memoir by Owusu is not written in chronological order rather it darts backwards and forwards throughout her life. In this intimate account, Owusu explores how at just two years old, her mother had abandoned her and her baby sister. With her internal conflict, she asks questions of what home really is and discusses themes of belonging, identity and race.
‘Crossroads’ by Jonathan Franzen, published by Fourth Estate
This “engrossing novel” was reviewed by The Independent, with our writer noting that it “takes us to New Prospect, Illinois”, where readers are introduced to the Russ family. One by one, Franzen dissects each of their “anxieties and their retreat into temptation – every one of them as rich, complex and a novel in themselves”.
‘The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois’ by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, published by Fourth Estate
Chosen as one of Oprah’s book club titles this year, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is the story of a Black family, exploring a historical narrative of trauma from the time before the American civil war and slavery, through the Civil Rights Movement to the present day. It’s a powerful, feminist novel that is not to be underestimated.
‘Beautiful Country: A Memoir of an Undocumented Childhood’ by Qian Julie Wang, published by Viking
Beautiful Country tells Wang’s unforgettable account of growing up in New York and what it means to live under the constant threat of deportation. Reliving her childhood, Wang brings the issues of poverty, alienation and injustice associated with the immigrant experience to the forefront in this harrowing and much-needed memoir.
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