Considered to be the most powerful position in the world, the US presidency, says outgoing incumbent Barack Obama, is “very isolating,” adding that during the eight years of his tenure, he found comfort in books.
“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he told The New York Times, in one of his final interviews before he leaves office on Friday, reading helped him “slow down and get a perspective”.
Books provided him “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes,” he said. He also noted that it was almost impossible to say whether this had made him a “better president”.
“But what I can say is that they have allowed me to sort of maintain my balance during the course of eight years, because this is a place that comes at you hard and fast and doesn’t let up,” Obama said.
“And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.
“And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head. Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else,” he said.
Obama further noted that the job of a president can be “very isolating.”
“So sometimes you have to sort of hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated, and that’s been useful,” he said.
Asked to name a few books that have touched him during his presidency, Obama said that Shakespeare continues to be a “touchstone”.
“I would say Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone. Like most teenagers in high school, when we were assigned, I don’t know, ‘The Tempest’ or something, I thought, ‘My God, this is boring.’ And I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings,” he said.
Obama also said that he spent “little” time on writing during his tenure and that he now plans to work on his memoir. This will rely heavily on a journal he has kept -- though “not with the sort of discipline that I would have hoped for”.
Obama named Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela among writers and leaders who had given him “a sense of solidarity”.
On reading the biographies of former presidents, Obama said: “The biographies have been useful, because I do think that there’s a tendency, understandable, to think that whatever’s going on right now is uniquely disastrous or amazing or difficult.”