“Reading is important. If you know how to read, then the whole world opens up to you.”
Throughout our nation’s 247-year history, only 47 men have held the title of President of the United States. From those first days of George Washington’s leadership to our current administration, these 47 individuals have profoundly shaped our country and the world as we know it. These men helped create one of the first modern democracies. They led the United States through countless conflicts, economic struggles, and wars. Each president has had unique experiences and beliefs that have guided their leadership and decision-making. One way to gain insight into their perspectives and motivations is to examine the books they enjoyed. Learn what influenced those who have so deeply influenced us.
Commander of the Continental Army, the father of our country, and lifelong lover of learning. Our first commander-in-chief certainly had a revolutionary approach to learning. Washington felt deeply self-conscious about his lack of formal education. Forced to give up school at age eleven following his father’s death, he instead turned to books to make up for his deficits in schooling. He read a variety of subjects but preferred utilitarian books on his various professions: surveying, farming, and military command. He kept detailed notes and journals on his readings. At his northern Virginia home of Mt. Vernon, Washington spent two hours in his library reading each morning. As president, he studied periodicals, political pamphlets, and political-religious sermons, applying the knowledge to his governance.
Our third president considered books essential, once telling John Adams, “I cannot live without books” (a sentiment I’m sure we can all agree with!). An ardent bookworm, Jefferson read a wide variety of subjects, including history, philosophy, literature, and politics. Jefferson’s personal library totaled almost 6,500 books and became the beginning of the Library of Congress. While building the University of Virginia, Jefferson opted to build the library at the center of campus, a spot usually reserved for the chapel. He chose the site because he wanted to emphasize the importance of books; they are central to one’s education.
Lincoln grew up in a tiny log cabin, where books were few and far between. Unable to afford an expansive library, our sixteenth president reread the few books he had. What he lacked in diversity, he made up for in depth. He learned his morals from the King James Bible and Aesop’s Fables and his eloquent use of language from Shakespeare (his favorite was Macbeth). Lincoln called his formal education “defective” and, like Washington, was primarily self-taught. He used what he learned from reading to become a lawyer, and in his oral arguments used examples from the books he read. He became known for his down to earth, relatable analogies that juries could easily understand.
“A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance.”Lyndon B. Johnson
Ulysses S. Grant
Our eighteenth president loved to read novels. While studying at West Point, he read so many books that he ended up neglecting his studies, earning him mediocre grades. Grant also enjoyed histories and military novels, taking detailed notes on what he read. Grant enlisted his close personal friend, author Mark Twain, assisted Grant in writing and editing his memoirs in the final years of his life. The published autobiography became one of the nineteenth century’s most successful and well-regarded books.
Arguably the most voracious reader on this list, the twenty-fifth president was known for finishing a book a day. He read several books simultaneously, rotating through them depending on his mood. He used books to learn about a myriad of topics, including nature, birds, poets, politics, biographies, and military tactics. If a book caught his attention, he liked to reach out to and befriend the author, usually elevating that writer’s status. The novelist Upton Sinclair became one of his close friends this way, and the two enjoyed corresponding often.
John F. Kennedy
As a young boy, Kennedy suffered from chronic illness. Routinely confined to hospital beds, our thirty-fifth president used books to escape. Reading developed into a lifelong habit. Kennedy became known for always having a book in his hand around the White House, often propping a book open and reading while working on other tasks. He read almost exclusively nonfiction, though a certain spy series caught his attention. After admitting to liking the James Bond novels and meeting their author, Ian Fleming, the books’ popularity soared in the United States. The Bond novels also influenced another famous individual: Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s assassin. The FBI documented two Bond novels in Oswald’s possession after the assassination. Both men are believed to have been reading Bond novels the night before the killing.
Though known for his love of jelly beans more than his love of books, Reagan was quite the avid reader. Our fortieth president enjoyed newspapers and journals, and his staff clipped articles of interest daily for him to review. They always made sure to include sports updates and the funny pages, which he enjoyed immensely. Reagan religiously read three weekly news magazines: Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report. When it was revealed that Reagan considered The Hunt For Red October “a perfect yarn,” the novel skyrocketed to the top of the best seller’s list. The author, Tom Clancy, has often credited Reagan with the book’s success.
“Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book.”Dwight Eisenhower
The forty-second president reads a range of genres, including history, politics, and philosophy. A former staffer reported that he liked to reread Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations annually. However, his true literary love lies in page-turning thrillers. Clinton is an open book about his love of thrillers, telling the New York Times “I’m an addict… I’m always reading mysteries.” Like other presidents, Clinton’s recommendations can cause an author or novel to see a massive bump in sales. Clinton has even teamed up with famous writer James Patterson. The two co-authored two political thrillers: The President is Missing, published in 2018, and The President’s Daughter, released in 2021. Both novels received praise for their accurate details that only a former president could know.
George W. Bush
Former Chief of Staff Karl Rove once said, “In the 35 years I’ve known George W. Bush, he’s always had a book nearby.” While in office our forty-third president had a yearly competition with Rove to see who could read more books. As a result, he ended up reading 186 books between 2006 and 2008! Bush particularly enjoys histories and biographies, and during his presidency he read a whopping fourteen biographies of Abraham Lincoln. In addition, he reads The Bible annually from cover to cover. Bush considered The Bible integral to his daily life as president and reported reading passages of the text daily while in office.
Our forty-fourth president has a knack for both reading and writing. As a youngster, he enjoyed black authors such as James Baldwin, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Malcolm X. During college he immersed himself in philosophy. In 1995 his first book, Dreams From My Father, was published. The memoir became a bestseller after being reissued in 2004. His second book, The Audacity of Hope, came out in 2006. While in the White House, Obama read for a half hour each night. Every year he publishes a list of his favorite books that he read that year. His all-time favorite? Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.