x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A little heavy reading for the president

President Barack Obama at the Mink Meadows Gold Club in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, during his summer holiday.
President Barack Obama at the Mink Meadows Gold Club in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, during his summer holiday.

After seven arduous months in the White House, the Obamas have finally decamped to Martha's Vineyard for their annual summer holiday. Only for a week, mind, but that's enough, according to the list of books recently released by Barack Obama's deputy press secretary, Bill Burton, for the president to tackle five sturdy tomes. Yes, the reading list is in. And with it, supposedly, a glimpse of the man behind the job.

Of the five works, totalling around 2,400 pages, three are fiction. Two of those, The Way Home, by George Pelecanos and Richard Price's Lush Life, are gritty East Coast crime stories. The other, Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, is set in a small town community on the edge of the Colorado Plains. Then there's a biography of the 18th-century American president John Adams by David McCullough. And Hot, Flat and Crowded, a look at the global environmental crisis by The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Scrutinising presidents' holiday reading lists has become something of a habit for the US media, ever since JFK admitted to a fondness for Ian Fleming. George W Bush, on the other hand, was - according to his PR - a Camus man, listing The Stranger among his out-of-hours favourites (Bush and French existentialism - the mind boggles). The first thing that strikes you about Obama's list, though, is its length. He only has a week - how on earth is he going to work out, play golf, catch crabs with the kids, run through briefings and talk to the wife as well as get through all that?

The answer is he won't. But then the fact that the list has been released at all means that it probably has nothing to do with what he actually wants to read. It's no coincidence, after all, that come September, Obama has plans to address the green issue in earnest. Luckily, if the list is to be believed, by then he will be informed to the point of saturation. Meanwhile, being seen to reacquaint himself with well-regarded presidents of the past such as Adams will no doubt boost confidence in his integrity.

But apart from the sheer number of pages and its blatant PR agenda the real problem with the list, surely, is that holiday reading is all about winding down, not boning up. Who wants to read about Armageddon as they enjoy a few days away from the office? Poor, wrung-out Obama should be looking for light relief as he hunkers down in the windswept dunes of the Vineyard. With that in mind, it's easy to imagine that Plainsong might be flung to the bottom of the book bag in favour of a dog-eared Dean Koontz, or that behind the cover of McCullough's tome lurks the latest Stieg Larsson. That is, if he hasn't already strayed to Malia's copies of the Twilight saga.