What President Obama's summer reading list says about him.

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Aug. 24 2009 8:09 PM

Barack's Book Bag

What Obama's summer reading list says about him.

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I bet Obama doesn't finish the Friedman. There's no book on his list more like his evening briefing books. And he's going to have to sacrifice something. The books total nearly 2,400 pages. At an average speed of one page per minute, the president needs to spend at least four hours a day reading. Plus, he's still got briefings and work reading he's got to do, and Sen. Baucus might be calling on Line 2. The president can't do all that and spend time with his daughters, play golf and tennis as he did Monday, and enjoy a few of those three-hour dinners with his wife. And if he can do all of that, why hasn't he passed health care reform twice by now? (Of course, the marathon reading could be training for the 1,000-page health care bill he might be lucky enough to read one day.)

That said, the Obama list is nowhere near as ambitious as the stack Bill Clinton used to take with him to the Vineyard. The 42nd president usually took at least a dozen books, ranging from history to biography to mysteries. When Clinton visited Edgartown Books on the island a few years ago to sign copies of his autobiography, he walked the aisles pointing to books, saying, "Read that, read that, read that," according to Susan Mercier, the manager.

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When Clinton vacationed at the Vineyard during his presidency, bookstores sent baskets of books in a public competition for his affections. This year, Edgartown Books sent President Obama a small collection: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo for the president, Linda Fairstein's Lethal Legacy for the first lady, and A Child's Guide to Martha's Vineyard for the girls. The books were delivered through a Clinton acquaintance (there are a lot of those on the Vineyard these days), but there's no word on whether the president has seen the delivery.

Over at Bunch of Grapes, a bookstore in Vineyard Haven, the new owner is playing it coy. A clerk acknowledged that they had sent books, but when asked which ones, she sounded as if she were on the press office payroll. "Nothing [we] can share with anyone," she said. Another store employee says there are rumors Obama might visit, which means management is probably wise to be so fussy with information. Barnes & Noble, meanwhile, certain not to get a visit, has already tried to capitalize on the Obama reading list.

We can blame John Kennedy for this obsession with presidential reading. Asked at a press conference what he read for relaxation, he named Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. Kennedy was the first glamour president of the television age. His celebrity status escalated the process of overinterpreting presidential behavior, but those books also seemed to say something about the man who read them. It was just too fitting that Kennedy was reading about a debonair Cold War rake who made his own rules. Presidential reading lists have been squeezed for meaning ever since. Which means that in the heat of this year's health care debate, the president doesn't dare read anything by anyone who once wrote a book called Dr. No. Slate V: POTUS as House Guest: A Short History