When President Barack Obama recently told The New York Times Magazine that he was reading “Netherland,” the novel caught fire.
Sales quickly rose by 40 percent and as of last week, the book had sold more than 95,000 copies.
“It was getting so much attention and we were in such demand that we decided to move up the release of the paperback by a month,” said Russell Perreault, vice president and director of publicity at Vintage Books, the novel’s publisher. “It’s been fantastic.”
Like presidents before him, when Obama reveals the current title on his nightstand, good things happen for that book.
It also happened after Obama suggested he was modeling his Cabinet on Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals,” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book of the same name shot up the charts last November, a full three years after it was published.
Howard Yoon, a literary agent with Gail Ross said, "few people in the world" have the influnce Obama has when it comes to the literary world.
"There's Oprah and now Obama," Yoon said. "Those are the two titans. But it's more than just influence. It's also respect and trust. Here you have a sitting president who's not only trained as a legal scholar but also a New York Times best-selling author. His credibility and trust is extraordinarily high when it comes to book recommendations."
So what’s next to get the Obama seal of approval? Aides say he read in recent months “What is the What,” a novel about a real-life Sudanese refugee who is separated from his family during the civil war when the Arab militia wipes out his village.
Obama liked the book so much, a senior aide said, he urged White House aides to read it, too.
First lady Michelle Obama also tries to make time for books. In recent weeks, a senior White House aide said she finished up “Life of Pi” — a book about an Indian boy who survives a shipwreck, which she read with daughter Malia — as well as Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth,” which Amazon.com describes as a novel about “race, sex, class, history, and the minefield of gender politics.”
“It’s surreal,” said Eggers, who also wrote the bestseller "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." “There’s no brain I respect more than Obama’s. To have occupied his time for a few hours…it’s a profound honor.”
Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng, the book’s main character, gave Obama a signed copy of the book at a San Francisco fundraiser during the presidential campaign.
“We had a brief talk about what was happening in Sudan,” Eggers recalled. “Some of the book takes place in a part of the continent he knows quite a lot about.
“It’s very much a hero’s journey of one man battling against incredible odds,” Eggers continued. “I think he can identify with that.”
At the same time, Eggers added, with all the issues before him, “You want to know when he finds the time.”
But presidents always have – or at least they say they have, and for the lucky author, it can help some copies fly off the shelves. Bill Clinton, a fan of murder mysteries, helped increase the popularity of Walter Mosley, when he was reading his book "White Butterfly."
In an interview with USA Today, Mosley acknowledged that Clinton reading the book "had an impact on book sales, though not as great as one might expect."
"The real thing Clinton's endorsement did for me was to make every journalist in America aware of my name," Mosley said.
After leaving office, Clinton even published a list of his 21 favorite books in November 2003 as part of an exhibit about his presidency. No dime-store novels here, Clinton’s list is thick with weighty tomes, including “Meditations” by stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's "Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics."
That’s one feature of the presidential reading list, a sense of gravitas. The president can’t really be seen reading that year’s beach novel, like "The Da Vinci Code."
But if Obama is struggling to read just a couple of books in his first four months on the job, President George W. Bush’s chief strategist Karl Rove insisted Bush read no less than 95 books in 2006, as part of a competition between the two.
Bush’s volumes, said Rove in a Wall Street Journal column about the contest, included biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Babe Ruth as well as — gravitas alert — Albert Camus’s “The Stranger.” Rove edged him out, with 110 books under his belt. In 2007, Rove said Bush read 51 books including “Khrushchev’s Cold War” and in 2008, he read 40 volumes, with Rove edging him out each year.
The op-ed surprised some longtime Bush-watchers, just because Bush always seemed to pride himself on being a “gut player,” who trusted pure instincts over, well, book-learning. But Rove sought to put that notion to rest:
“In the 35 years I've known George W. Bush, he's always had a book nearby. He plays up being a good ol' boy from Midland, Texas, but he was a history major at Yale and graduated from Harvard Business School. You don't make it through either unless you are a reader,” Rove wrote.
“There is a myth perpetuated by Bush critics that he would rather burn a book than read one. Like so many caricatures of the past eight years, this one is not only wrong, but also the opposite of the truth and evidence that bitterness can devour a small-minded critic. Mr. Bush loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them,” he said.
On the other hand, Obama has made his reputation as a man of words – as a two-time bestselling author, with a Harvard law degree and a reputation as an orator who wrote many of his own most important speeches.
During the campaign, aides say, his reading list included Fareed Zakaria’s "The Post-American World," Larry Bartels’s "Unequal Democracy" and Jonathan Alter’s "The Defining Moment," a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first 100 days.
But for him, books now are largely on the shelf.
In more than a month, Obama has been trudging through “Netherland” page by page. But in recent weeks, he has twice plugged the book – the story of a banker who grows apart from his wife following the 9/11 attacks and rediscovers his childhood love of cricket.
In an interview with the Times Magazine last month, he said he became “sick enough of briefing books” that he picked up the novel in the evenings to unwind. Last week, he gave the book yet another endorsement: “It’s fascinating,” the president and bestselling author told Newsweek. “It’s a wonderful book, although I know nothing about cricket.”
Asked in the Newsweek interview when he has the time to read, Obama confessed to being a “night owl.” After eating dinner with the family, putting the kids to bed, and a perusal of briefing papers, the president said he usually carves out half an hour before bedtime to read for pleasure.
Still, Obama — who has been known to read three books at once — may not be reading as much as he did before moving to the White House, aides say. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t come off as bookish.
“This is part of the image Barack Obama has brought to the presidency,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. “He seems to be really intellectually curious and it’s not surprising that he has a broad sense of tastes including trend books, fiction and history.”
Thompson said Obama is so well regarded that “an endorsement by him could be much better than an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey.”
Eggers said Obama’s book-backing carries more weight on the world’s stage, too.
“President Obama has a distinct interest in Sudan and the US is in a unique position to negotiate a lasting peace there,” he said. “No one else can do it.”