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.

All vacations have their rituals: slapping sunscreen on wriggling kids, eating ice cream after dinner, and hiding the holes in the rental-house drywall. Presidential vacations have rituals, too: peekaboo with the press corps, highly managed casual social engagements, and golf. Always there must be the golf.

Even the news media have their vacation rituals. One of them is overinterpreting the presidential summer reading list. Monday the White House obliged, offering the list of five books president Obama has packed for his trip:

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John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.
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The Way Home by George Pelecanos, a crime thriller based in Washington, D.C.; Lush Life by Richard Price, a story of race and class set in New York's Lower East Side; • Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded, on the benefits to America of an environmental revolution; John Adams by David McCullough; • Plainsong by Kent Haruf, a drama about the life of eight different characters living in a Colorado prairie community.

What does this list of American authors tell us about the president? Well, it's not as fun as the year Bush decided to read Camus' The Stranger. George Bush reading a French Existentialist is like Obama reading a Cabela's catalog. Plus, it was a story about a one-time layabout turned unrepentant Arab killer, which, if you wanted to overinterpret things, gave you enough material to get you through a few packs of Gauloises.

The Obama selection is not overtly controversial. In 2006, Bush's list included The Great Influenza, about the 1918 flu. If Obama were reading that today while his White House was issuing a new report about the H1N1 virus, he'd start a national panic. But his list is also clearly not poll-tested. Women played a key role in Obama's victory in 2008. They're swing voters. And yet all of Obama's authors are white men. The subject of the longest book, John Adams, is a dead white male. Obama couldn't get away with that in an election year, and, given his aides' penchant for cleaning up little things like this, we'll soon see the president with a copy of Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women.

The Price and Pelecanos books are very similar—urban, East Coast crime stories by two authors who have also written for the HBO series The Wire. Only the Haruf provides geographical and literary diversity. The McCullough book seems like the kind of thing presidents get with the job. When presidents read presidential biographies, it must be like a user's manual for the office. Sure, Adams occupied it 200 years ago, but just as Obama read Team of Rivals when picking his Cabinet and Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment on FDR's 100 days when forming his initial agenda, he'll probably now start dropping Adams references in the coming months.

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.

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