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Barack Obama Spills The Beans On How He Survived The White House Years

Updated: January 17, 2017, 6:22 PM IST
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Barack Obama Spills The Beans On How He Survived The White House Years
File Photo: US President Barack Obama.

In the polarized environment that we dwell in, where the internet has enabled amplification of certainties and biases of kinds and has let people retreat to their own silos, outgoing president of United States Barack Obama sees novels and other art as providing a kind of bridge that might span fissures and "a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day."

In an interview to the chief book critic for The New York Times, Barack Obama talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life and how books became a sustaining source for ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition at a time when events move so quickly and information is transmitted in abundance.

Reading gave him the ability to occasionally "slow down and get perspective" and "the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes."

"During very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating." he told New York Times and what kept him company and rendered a sense of solidarity in those tough times were the writings of Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

Words became a way to define himself, and to communicate his ideas and ideals to the world.

Obama embraces artistes like Shakespeare who saw the human situation in its entirity, from its follies, cruelties and mad blunders, to its resilience, decencies and acts of grace. The playwright’s tragedies, he says, have been “foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.”

From meditating on how Roosevelt navigated through World War II to induldging in escape reading with Hugo Award-winning apocalyptic sci-fi epic “The Three-Body Problem” by the Chinese writer Liu Cixin, reading for Obama was a crucial tool in sorting out what he believed in, dating back to his teenage years, when he immersed himself in works by Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois and Malcolm X in an effort "to raise myself to be a black man in America."

In an effort to reflect upon self and test his own beliefs he took to philosophers from St. Augustine to Nietzsche, Emerson to Sartre to Niebuhr.
Reading remains an essential part of his daily life. Ranging from contemporary literary fiction to classic novels to groundbreaking works of nonfiction like Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction”, he spent an hour or so late at night reading.

The last novel he read was Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”

He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her. The books included "One Hundred Years of Solitude" ,"The Golden Notebook” and “The Woman Warrior”.

Marilynne Robinson, V. S. Naipaul , Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri are among other writers he has read widely.

He had lunch last week with five novelists he admires — Dave Eggers, Mr. Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Mr. Díaz and Barbara Kingsolver.

“At a time,” he says, “when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”

Transcript of The New York Time's Interview with Barack Obama On What Books Mean to Him

First Published: January 17, 2017, 6:20 PM IST
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