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Barack Obama’s 2019 summer reading list celebrates a diverse group of authors

His recommendations include the works of Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women.

A girl shares her song book with President Barack Obama during a campfire session at the White House on June 30, 2015.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama shared a summer reading list on Instagram filled with mostly fiction works that touch on big themes about race, gender, and class.

The president’s recommendation post — part of a tradition of sharing what he’s reading, watching and listening — begins by suggesting rereading the works of Toni Morrison such as Beloved, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye and Sula. Morrison, who died earlier this month, was a trailblazing figure in portraying black life in America and her books dealt with difficult topics like the intersection of race, family, and identity.

Three of Obama’s picks were nonfiction: Stephanie Land’s Maid is a recollection of her time as a housekeeper that provides “a single mother’s personal, unflinching look at America’s class divide” (based off Land’s personal essay for Vox in 2015); Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is the geobiologist’s memoir that explores her career, friendship and love for plants; and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallow is about how the internet’s impact on our lives calls for reflection, “which is something we all could use a little more of in this age,” Obama wrote.

Like any good summer reading list, though, Obama’s picks were mostly fiction, including many works that deal with pressing issues today.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead details “the way Jim Crow and mass incarceration tore apart lives and wrought consequences that ripple into today.” How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu addresses the issues immigrants face in America — which differs by generation — and gives readers a “better sense of the complexity and redemption within the American immigrant story.” And American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson isn’t your run-of-the-mill spy thriller. Through its protagonist, a black FBI intelligence agent, the book tackles the complexities of living in America as a woman of color.

Some of the books are more surreal: Ted Chiang’s Exhalation (by the author of the short story that became the film Arrival) is a collection of science fiction short stories that tackles big questions with a sense of scientific allure; Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women is also a collection of mysterious short stories that explore the relationship between men and women and will “sometimes leave you with more questions than answers”; and Téa Obreht’s new book Inland introduces haunted people and places while holding on to the same dreamlike elements that made her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife so successful.

Then there is the commercially successful and gripping novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which depicts Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in Henry VIII’s England. The book might have come out in 2009, but Obama has an excuse for being late to the party: “I was a little busy back then.”

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