Here are eight surprising stories about the books presidents read during their stay in the White House:
1. For Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, reading was a costly—but worthwhile— investment.
Books have been the most consistently used cultural tool by all presidents, to project an intellectual image to the American people. Unfortunately, books were quite expensive in the Colonies—in 1776, a first edition of Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" would have cost about $615 in today's dollars, about the same as an iPad costs today.
Despite the huge cost of books, Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were among the most well-read individuals in the Founding period. Jefferson had a personal library of 6,487 books, which became the foundation for the Library of Congress. As Jefferson once noted, "I cannot live without books." For his part, John Adams had a library of 3000 books. He once confessed to his wife, Abigail, "I have been imprudent, I have spent an estate in books."
2. Abraham Lincoln used the few books he could afford as tools for sharpening his political and social skills.
Finding books on the prairie was even harder than it was for the Founders. Coming from humble origins, Abraham Lincoln had access to a limited selection of books, including the Bible, Parson Weems's Life of Washington, Aesop's fables, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, and A History of the United States.
While Lincoln was known to go to great lengths to get new books, he was not always able to do so. In the absence of new material, he read the few books he had over and over again, and internalized their messages. From the Bible and Shakespeare he learned a common but elevated language. From Aesop he learned the artful use of anecdotes to make a point. From Weems he gained an appreciation of how a leader can capture the people's hearts. His reading deserves, and receives, much of the credit for Lincoln's extraordinary evolution from what a poor backwoodsman to our poet president, enshrined on Mount Rushmore and celebrated for his wit and wisdom.
3. Teddy Roosevelt befriended many authors during his time in the White House, including Upton Sinclair, author of "The Jungle."
Teddy Roosevelt's fascination with books—he would read two to three a night, even in the White House—helped him develop credibility and knowledge across a myriad of different topics: birds, poets, politics, naval sea power, biographies. If a book particularly grabbed him, Roosevelt would reach out and befriend the author, enhancing Roosevelt's knowledge and the author's reputation. Authors he befriended included Alfred Thayer Mahan, Upton Sinclair, Israel Zangwill and Jacob Riis. If a person failed to grab him, however, Roosevelt was apt to pick up a book and start reading. He also occupied the time waiting for trains or appointments by reading, and would not hesitate to open a book at parties and conferences alike.
4. The media blew JFK's interest in James Bond novels out of proportion—but this only helped raise the "cool" factor of both the president and Ian Fleming.
When John F. Kennedy revealed a liking for the novels of Ian Fleming, it helped turn superspy James Bond into a publishing sensation. Or at least this was the story. Kennedy liked the books, but only to a degree, and not to the degree portrayed in the media. Newsweek reporter and Kennedy pal Ben Bradlee—and the future editor of the Washington Post—notes that Kennedy "seemed to enjoy the cool and the sex and the brutality" of the Bond books and films.
Beyond that, Kennedy's interest was overblown. Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger even admits that pushing Kennedy's link to Fleming—his "supposed addiction to James Bond"—was a "publicity gag." As gags go, it was very successful, for both Kennedy and Fleming.
5. Ronald Reagan helped launch Tom Clancy's career when he praised "The Hunt For Red October" in 1985.
Though known for his acting career, Ronald Reagan loved to read. At one point, his spokesman Marlin Fitzwater suggested that he could let the media know that Reagan was reading some recent nonfiction. Fitzwater thought that this might play better in the press than the typical stories of Reagan reading Louis L'Amour Westerns. But Reagan declined—"No, Marlin, I don't think we need to do that."
As for Reagan's fiction reading, it helped transform the obscure insurance salesman Tom Clancy into a publishing phenomenon. After Reagan called Clancy's Cold War techno-thriller The Hunt for Red October "a perfect yarn" in 1985, the book skyrocketed up the best-seller list. As Clancy admitted, "President Reagan made The Hunt for Red October a best-seller." Clancy added, "What happened to me was pure dumb luck—I'm not the new Hemingway." Hemingway or not, Reagan helped Clancy become quite wealthy, as he would go on to sign a three-million-dollar contract for three more novels.
6. Bill Clinton couldn't get enough of mystery novels, which he called his "cheap little thrills outlet."
Bill Clinton loved to read mysteries. He even told C-SPAN's Brian Lamb, "I love mysteries. I'm an addict; that's one of my little cheap thrills outlet. I'm always reading mysteries."
There was a commercial advantage for mystery writers who made it onto Clinton's reading list. When word got out that Clinton was reading Walter Mosley's detective story White Butterfly, its sales jumped, though not as much, Mosely mused, as he might have expected. In February 1994, Clinton emerged from Washington's MysteryBooks holding Michael Connelly's Concrete Blonde, a purchase captured by a throng of cameras and reporters. Connelly has been a mainstay on the best-seller list ever since.
7. George W. Bush read an incredible amount during his presidency— he finished 186 books in two years.
In contrast to his reputation, George W. Bush was a prolific behind-the-scenes reader. Despite the fact that he was regularly derided as incurious and unread, Bush has long read a great many books. Karl Rove wrote in 2008, "In the 35 years I've known George W. Bush, he's always had a book nearby."
Bush read 186 books between 2006 and 2008, mainly history and biography. By way of comparison, the typical American reads four books annually and 27 percent of Americans report reading no books over the course of a year. Bush, in contrast, read fourteen biographies of Lincoln alone while in the White House. This was in addition to his annual reading of the entire Bible, along with a daily devotional. In another surprise, Bush read both liberal and conservative authors without appearing to discriminate. Clinton and Obama, by contrast, read almost exclusively liberal authors, while Reagan favored conservatives.
8. Obama established himself as a best-seller machine early on in his career.
Obama established an intellectual image early on in his career by writing his memoir, Dreams from My Father. The book became a major best-seller, and made Obama independently wealthy. But Obama could also create best-sellers in other ways.
Obama made the concept of the presidential book bump a regular phenomenon. Books that have benefitted from Obama's attention include: Kent Haruf's Plainsong; Richard Price's Lush Life; Jonathan Franzen's Freedom; and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. President Obama will almost surely generate at least one more major best-seller.
When he leaves office, his presidential memoir is sure to set a record for the biggest advance in presidential history. To be sure, big advances are not new for ex-presidents. Harry Truman secured a $670,000 advance for his memoirs, and he had very little additional income. Today, presidents get a generous pension, but advances are even higher, including $7 million for George W. Bush, and $15 million for Bill Clinton. For Obama the best-seller maker, though, that number will go even higher.