February
20th 2009
Book recommendations for President Obama

Posted under: American history, book reviews

johnsonandhimSusurro at Like a Whisper has tagged me with a meme to compile a list of books to give to President Obama.  He’s a bright guy who always has a book in his hand, and I imagine that he reads much more broadly than most people.  Herewith is my annotated bibliography of five titles, which I humbly submit to a candid world:

  1. Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  Master of the Senate (2002).  This is the third volume in Caro’s planned 4-volume definitive biography, and it covers his years in the U.S. Senate from 1953 through his fight for the 1960 Democratic nomination.  I think Obama should figure out what LBJ sprinkled on his Wheaties every morning–this Dem thinks we need a little more Lyndon Johnson and a little less Jimmy Carter right about now (except, reinstall the solar panels on the  White House, and keep the meetings while on the john to a minimum.)  Maybe the President can invite Caro over for a little seminar-style preview of volume 4.  (Are beagles hypoallergenic?  Just a thought…)
  2. Robert McNamara, In Retrospect:  The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995).  Of course, there is such a thing as too much LBJ, and this book explains why Johnson is not remembered as the greatest liberal Democratic president in U.S. history despite his championing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 (respectively) and the War on Poverty.  McNamara’s book is extremely insightful and not too self-serving–too bad he was thirty years too late.  (Paging Tim Geithner!  Mr. Geithner!  History on line 1 for Mr. Geithner!  “Best and the brightest” my ass!)
  3. Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food:  An Eater’s Manifesto (2008).  Pollan has been tireless in his self-promotion and attempts to reach the ear of the President lately (some of which have been successful), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right.  This manifesto argues against the fake science of “nutritionism,” which dominates our views of food and the processed food industry today (itself built on cheap oil and the mass production of low-cost, low-nutrition commodities), and in favor of a simple mantra:  “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”
  4. Mary P. Ryan, Mysteries of sex : tracing women and men through American history (2006) is a lively, intelligent, and provocative survey of the persistence of the gender line in America, from before European contact to the present day.  She grapples convincingly with the disturbing lack of change over time we see when it comes to the history of gender and sexuality. 
  5. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868).  His little girls won’t be young enough to read to for very much longer, and this is a good book to read out loud.  At once impossibly quaint (pickled limes?) and shockingly recognizable, the March girls’ travails while their father served during the Civil War still resonate today, especially with eager and imaginative readers who identify with Jo.  Besides, it’s a great little seminar in the material culture of middle-class mid-nineteenth century domesticity.  (Has anyone ever figured out why those pickled limes were so desirable to Amy and her school chums?)

So, having completed my task, I now tag Larry Cebula at Northwest History, Clio Blustocking, and Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Profs.  What books would you pile up on Barack Obama’s bedside table?  And commenters:  which books you would suggest?

21 Comments »

21 Responses to “Book recommendations for President Obama”

  1. Erica on 20 Feb 2009 at 6:52 am #

    Little Women! What a great choice, I adored that book when I was young. It’s also quite timely — with a tanking economy, the idea of creatively “keeping up appearances” ought to resonate with modern American girls. (I also read all the sequels, which weren’t quite as good, but it was funny to see Amy’s daughter turning into another Amy!) I found a recipe for pickled lemons recently, and presumably it would work for limes, too… now if only I can remember where the recipe WAS.

    I’ll have to take a look at Pollan’s book. With no idea of what he’s actually done so far, he’ll certainly have a ways to go to overturn a century of changing America’s dining habits to include MOSTLY processed foods — but I’m far from opposed to the idea :)

  2. Clio Bluestocking on 20 Feb 2009 at 8:07 am #

    Ack! Let me ponder. Definitely the LBJ book, that’s for sure!

  3. Ann Bartow on 20 Feb 2009 at 8:57 am #

    I’m tempted to say “Our Bodies, Ourselves” because it has been that kind of day! But I’ll do a serious list later, and link back. Cheers.

  4. Kathie on 20 Feb 2009 at 9:08 am #

    I like Michael Pollan, though I also like the response to his little dictum: “Ate food. Mostly plants. Still hungry.”
    And I loved Little Women, but when I tried reading it to my daughter, I found the quaintness to be a tripping point – I spent so much time explaining references that she didn’t know about that it impeded the flow of the story, and we never did finish it. Pickled limes indeed!
    For Pres. Obama, I’d recommend something about Washington DC’s history and culture – maybe Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, or Edward P. Jones’s story collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children.

  5. Historiann on 20 Feb 2009 at 9:12 am #

    Erica–I once made some pickled lemons for a Morrocan dish, but it was mostly just quartering the lemons and packing them in salt. I’ll have to do a little research on the pickled limes front, unless someone else writes in with a history and recipe for them!

    Good suggestions so far by all–with Kathie’s caveat about LW duly noted.

  6. susurro on 20 Feb 2009 at 12:30 pm #

    this is a great list! I second 2-4. Despite my very long list I didn’t even think of books the girls!!! Good on you for remembering the next generation. :D

  7. Satsuma on 20 Feb 2009 at 2:31 pm #

    The feminist classics. Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon. Mary Daly to get the big patriarchal picture.
    or just books to be conversant on lives of women, of which he seems to not really know very much to begin with.
    Just my feeling that he looks bored when he’s talking to women’s political groups, and the fact that he said he was a feminist privately to the Ms. staff and N.O.W. but I NEVER heard him even use the word “feminist” in a major speech. Hmmmm.

  8. Profane on 20 Feb 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    I scolded myself recently when the Obama/Carter comparisons started springing to mind. Please, PLEASE, more Lyndon Johnson.

  9. Satsuma on 20 Feb 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    I know the fear Profane…. that feeling that we have gone back to 1979— inflation a’comin’ right around the corner. LBJ indeed.

  10. Historiann on 20 Feb 2009 at 4:08 pm #

    Well, to be fair: LBJ’s presidency rode the crest of a wave of economic expansion that wouldn’t crash on his watch, so he inherited a country in decent shape. Obama has not, and that’s not his fault, although it is now his responsibility to help put things aright.

    I forgot to include Paul Krugman’s latest book on the list above: _The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008_.

  11. Notorious Ph.D. on 20 Feb 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    My suggestion is one I’m currently starting (so the suggestion is provisional): The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz. It starts out with the argument (which historians have known, but which she presents concisely and readably) that the “traditional American family” is in fact a very recent invention, and even then, it didn’t reflect reality. She then goes on (I think) to discuss the problems with this construct, and the problems that clinging to it creates. Just the thing for a president who’s sooner or later going to have to tangle with the cultural conservatives.

  12. Notorious Ph.D. on 20 Feb 2009 at 6:12 pm #

    (and re: Pollan — I liked “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” but “Eater’s Manifesto” felt a bit lightweight.)

  13. Profane on 20 Feb 2009 at 6:49 pm #

    But Historiann, Carter’s presidency also followed eight years of ultimately unpopular Republican control of the White House (sound familiar?) – and Holder’s comments the other day invoked Carter’s ‘malaise’ comments in more persons than myself. That is the fear.

    But sorry to play Debby Downer on Friday night.

    PARTY ON!

  14. Historiann on 20 Feb 2009 at 8:28 pm #

    Notorious–good suggestions. Coontz is great.

    And Profane: I know you REALLY don’t want to hear this, but a certain Big Dog agrees with you completely!

  15. K.N. on 20 Feb 2009 at 8:46 pm #

    So many books, so little time…

    1. Chris Hedges, “War is a Force that Gives us Meaning,” is a thoughtful (if chilling) treatment on the collective choice of war;
    2. Liz Cohen’s “A Consumer’s Republic” provides excellent insight into how the US public became so voraciously materialistic;
    3. Ted Steinberg’s “Down to Earth” is an excellent survey of American Environmental history;
    4. Paul Hawken’s “Ecology of Commerce” and/or his “Blessed Unrest,” for a blueprint (and hope) for achieving social and environmental justice;
    5. Alan Brinkley, “The End of Reform” offers perhaps the most thoughtful treatment of the New Deal Era.

  16. Sharon on 21 Feb 2009 at 12:48 am #

    Hmmm. I was thinking of Amy’s pickled limes just this morning. May I advocate diversity in Alcott? If you haven’t read An Old Fashioned Girl, do. “Give her a ballot-box,” cries Kate King. For a book published in 1870, it has a lot more to say about feminism than Little Women (though really, everyone should read Little Women).

  17. koshem bos on 21 Feb 2009 at 5:24 am #

    I strongly recommend “Less Than One: Selected Essays” by Joseph Brodsy the Russian Nobel Laureate. It teaches one the importance of courage and and a strong backbone.

    Brodsky shows Obama that one can use the English language with a little more elegance and vision.

  18. Matt L on 21 Feb 2009 at 10:51 am #

    Hey Historiann and commentators!

    I like the list from Historiann and the suggestions by the commentators. The Polan book is on my list, and I had not heard of the Stephanie Coontz book. Let me put on my European specialist hat and recommend Obama read two books about present and potential foreign policy problems:

    David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. (Avon Books: NYC, 1989). The origins of our current problems in the Middle East, including Israel/Palestine, part of the the tiff with Iran, and the occupation of Iraq go all the way back to the flawed peacemaking of 1919. In a sense, every place American soldiers have been deployed in the last twenty years was once a part of the Ottoman Empire. In a sense, the occupation of Iraq represents the last in a series of wars that broke up that empire starting in the 1820s.

    Stephen Kotkin. Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000. (Oxford UP: NYC, 2001). Kotkin concisely traces the decline and disintegration of the Soviet Union. He also hints at some of the failures and limits of US foreign policy. Much of Putin’s policies since 2000 contain an element of continuity with Brezhnev’s foreign and economic policies. Reading this should point to the risks and opportunities for engagement with the Russian government and people. It also illuminates some of the social, economic and political problems faced by the Ukraine, the Baltic Republics and other former Soviet republics.

  19. Jeremy Young on 21 Feb 2009 at 11:15 pm #

    I like your suggestions. I’d add:

    Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis

    Brooks Adams, The Theory of Social Revolutions

  20. Clio Bluestocking on 23 Feb 2009 at 7:10 pm #

    I saw some pickled lemons at Trader Joe’s the other day. Who knew?

  21. What Should the Obamas Read? « Literary Obama on 24 Feb 2009 at 8:56 am #

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