February 7, 2017

A blueprint for communicating the value of reading

On January 17, the New York Times published an interview with then-President Obama. During the interview, he was asked what had enabled him to endure the pressures imposed on him as President.

His answer: books.

Michiko Kakutani’s article not only gives us a glimpse into the reading life of the most powerful person in the world at that time, but it also reminds us that our libraries and communities are filled with readers who share Obama’s deeply personal connection to books and reading. It’s up to us (librarians) to help them uncover the meaning of books in their own lives.

Obama reads widely. The article -- and its accompanying transcript -- contain books and authors we know.  Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, Barbara Kingsolver, Junot Diaz, Philip Roth, Shakespeare, and the writings and biographies of Presidents like Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt are just a handful of the works and authors mentioned in this article. As you can see in this sample, Obama’s reading eye was caught by both fiction and non-fiction, literary and genre titles, and current bestsellers as well as classics.

Moving through this article, you see that reading is not just something the former President did once upon a time. Immersive reading has always been a part of his life. Books were portable worlds that grounded him as he moved from childhoods in Indonesia and Hawaii. He talks about how he fell away from books as an adolescent and then recovered them in college and their ability to sustain him during his Presidency.

He knows that books are not just personal, private experiences but experiences to be shared. He gave his daughter a Kindle pre-loaded with the books, including One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. These were works that had mattered to him and that he hoped would matter to her or at least give her a glimpse into her father.

Obama believes that books represent an ongoing conversation with the issues and challenges that face us all. Shakespeare is not the only author who teaches us about the human situation. He believes that right now, today there are young men and women who are writing the books that will illuminate our times and provide us with the road-maps we need to transcend them.

We all know readers for whom reading has mattered as much as it has to Obama and who share his reading habits, but we rarely encounter a reader who is so aware of what reading has done to them. This article is one of the most powerful witnesses to books and the power of reading that I have ever encountered. The former President details over and over how books have impacted him. He talks about how Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead helped him understand the everyday people of Iowa where he was campaigning while he was reading it. He talks about how the book connected the citizens of Iowa with his Kansas grandparents linking the unfamiliar with the known. When the interviewer Michiko Kakutani asked what does a President turn to after a mass killing like the one in Newton, Conn., Obama answered, Lincoln, King, Gandhi and Mandela. Like all of us readers who instinctively know which books to turn to during the death of a parent, divorce, and the loss of a friendship, Obama knew these leaders would ease his sense of being isolated and alone because they had lived and written about the tragedies that happened on their watch. 

Obama’s story also provides us with a blue-print for communicating the value that libraries bring to their communities through books and reading. Our communities have always faced challenges and always will. A community’s library is its promise to its citizens that they are not limited to the everyday and a physical location. When they walk through our doors, they enter the world of possibilities whose only limitation is their willingness to experience and appreciate it.

We all know readers like former President Obama. The real question for us is what do we do to help more people understand the value of reading and the impact that books are having on them?

Duncan is co-founder and general manager of NoveList. He helps transform the lives of readers by leading a team that creates the tools library staff use to provide their most important service -- connecting readers with the books that will make a difference in their lives.

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