Books mold the minds of everyone—from earnest kindergarteners to ambitious world leaders. They’re the great equalizers in this way, with the ability to entice the imagination, expand knowledge, and push the limits of empathy and understanding across time and space.
Books are so influential that even the presidents of the United States—the nation’s foremost political, social, and moral leaders—have been known to be prominent bookworms.
You can learn a lot about these historical figures from their literary preferences—so much so, in fact, that we’ve compiled a list of the favorite books and authors of America’s top presidential bibliophiles. From the genres they enjoyed to the writers whose works their policies sought to emulate, these are the best-read presidents in United States history.
Presidential Term: 1797-1801
Favorite Book: Mary Wollstonecraft’s An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution
No best-read presidents list can begin without the inclusion of John Adams, who was one of the nation’s most prolific Founding Fathers and a notorious bookworm. In addition to his political and legal activities, Adams was a tireless writer and reader. His home in Quincy, MA served as a library, study, office, and educational salon, where he and his equally scholarly wife, Abigail, were in regular correspondence with some of colonial America’s foremost thinkers, scholars, and politicians.
Their love of literature was so profound that books were the only spending exception in their otherwise frugal household. The Adamses lived rather modestly compared to other founding figures in the nation, but they spent a great deal of their income on growing their home’s extensive book collection.
This personal library—which, after John Adams’ passing, was willed to the population of Massachusetts—housed over 3,500 volumes. Both he and his wife were fond of signing and taking notes within books, marking passages and adding comments either for or against the ideas on the page. Many of these notations have been read and studied themselves. Today the books are cataloged and housed in the Boston Public Library.
Adams’ Favorite Books and Authors
Adams read everything from political theory and mathematics to economics, agriculture, and rhetoric. His most prized book in his collection was a 1734 copy of Cicero’s Orationum Selectarum Liber: Editus in Usum Scholarum—a rare edition at the time, and a book that Adams attributed much of his foundational rhetoric understanding and skills.
Aside from his legal, diplomatic, and statesman work, Adams is famous for his opinionated and rather blunt demeanor alongside his fiery but eloquent public-speaking abilities. Many of the texts he reportedly loved reflected his personality, including the political theories of Jean-Jacques Rosseau, Thomas Payne, Voltaire, and William Godwin. His most annotated volume—which contains more than 10,000 words of comments, critiques, and notes—is inside famed feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft’s favorable take on the rationale and inspiration behind the French Revolution.
Presidential Term: 1801-1809
Favorite Books: Plato’s Works of Plato, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, John Locke’s Two Treaties of Government, Henry Home’s The Gentleman Farmer
Thomas Jefferson is revered not only as the author of the Declaration of Independence but also as one of the premier thinkers, inventors, and scholars of early American history. His love for books and reading was so profound he invented a rotating table for his study—one that allowed him to swivel between five books at once.
Jefferson spent the majority of his adult life amassing written works in his home estate of Monticello in Virginia. At its peak, his personal library held more than 7,000 works. In 1814, he sold this collection to the U.S. government to replace the original Library of Congress, which was burned by the British during the War of 1812. After the sale, Jefferson continued collecting books to build another library for personal enjoyment during his retirement.
Later in life, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, the first public and secular university in the nation. It was a testament to his love of reading as well as his stance on education as a right for all. At the heart of campus, Jefferson placed the university’s library rather than the traditional chapel or church—signaling again his belief that books are the centerfold of quality education.
What’s more, after resigning from public political life, Jefferson spent excessive time and money searching, collecting, and building partnerships with the major booksellers in New York and Philadelphia, as well as many in Europe.
Jefferson’s Favorite Books and Authors
Jefferson’s reading habits spanned across languages and genres. He was fond of the romance languages—French, Italian and Spanish—but he could read in Greek and Latin as well. His favorites included early philosophical works like those of Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, and Plutarch, as well as the occasional fictional delight with a moral twist such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
Presidential Term: 1861-1865
Favorite Author: Shakespeare
The humble origins of Abraham Lincoln would lead many to believe the 16th president of the United States would not have had much exposure to literature—yet the opposite was true.
Throughout his upbringing in rural Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, young Lincoln was a voracious reader. Friends and neighbors knew Lincoln as the boy who always had his nose pressed in a book. He read and reread, among others, fictitious work such as Aesop’s Fables and Robinson Crusoe and nonfiction such as Mason Locke Weem’s The Life of Washington and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
It was this quiet love for learning and firm belief in education and self-betterment that drove Lincoln into his famed political life. His oratory skills and mesmerizing speeches were on display even during his early career as a prairie lawyer and representative in the Illinois House. It would be these very skills that would ascend him into the U.S. House of Representatives—while only in his 30s—and, later on, the presidency.
Lincoln’s Favorite Books and Authors
Much of Lincoln’s profound speech writing and oratory abilities are attributed to his eclectic reading habits. During his presidential term—which scholars and public opinion still rank as one of the top presidencies in American history—Lincoln would toil for hours over his public addresses, often reading, writing, and editing late into the night.
He had both left and right-brained literary tastes, enjoying the Romantic poets like Keats and Wordsworth while relying on the classics and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense for much of his moral and political development. Lincoln also enjoyed John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and passages from the King James Bible.
Yet no other writer earned the same status or affection in the eyes of Lincoln as Shakespeare. The bard was a regular staple during Lincoln’s presidency, with Lincoln carrying around copies of Shakespeare’s collected works. Among his favorites were political plays like “Richard the Third,” “Hamlet,” and “Henry the Eighth”—though in Lincoln’s own words, “nothing equals ‘Macbeth.'”
Ulysses S. Grant
Favorite Author: Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Few recognize the literary love behind the quiet and gruff 18th president of the United States. Respected for his leadership as Union general during the American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant had little formal political experience but extensive education at the nation’s premier military academy, West Point, where his passion for reading evolved.
Indeed, it was his name and reputation as a general that endeared the public to vote him president in 1869. However, his term was riddled with economic instability, scandals, and internal corruption within his administration—corruption Grant was either unaware of or uninterested in addressing.
Grant’s Favorite Books and Authors
By his own admission, Grant was not a man of much self-discipline. While at West Point, he was notorious for skipping out on his studies to spend leisurely hours in the library, reading the popular novels and authors of the day. This included names like James Fennimore Cooper, Walter Scott, and Washington Irving, who wrote books made up of grand, adventurous fiction plots, bold heroes, and dramatic storylines.
Grant’s all-time favorite was none other than the bestselling English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who, at the time, was world-renowned for his gothic-leaning works of pop fiction. Today he’s remembered for common lines such as “the pen is mightier than the sword” and the opening, “It was a dark and stormy night,” as well as the affection Grant held for his novels—to which he proudly claimed to have read all fifteen.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Favorite Book: Any collection of Rudyard Kipling poems
Franklin D. Roosevelt—or colloquially known as FDR—is best known for his long and pivotal presidency during America’s turbulent Great Depression and World War II years. His fireside chats and ambitious New Deal ushered the country into a new era—one that by the mid-20th-century positioned the United States as an economic, military, and social world leader.
FDR is also known for his unique—and only recently delved into—personal life. Afflicted with polio as a child, he went to great lengths to hide his condition from the public while in office. Lifelong struggles with polio developed a resolve within FDR that translated into his presidential style, which many cited as firm and paternal but not without its moments of considerable doubt and insecurity. It was within this wrangling that FDR was also said to hold extreme empathy for the nation’s poor and underprivileged—an empathy that no doubt inspired much of his New Deal initiatives.
FDR’s Favorite Books and Authors
It’s no accident that his literary tastes mirrored both his global foresight and internal struggles. With the United States entering the world stage in a way no previous president had encouraged, FDR read prolifically on military, economic, and diplomatic policy. His personal library held more than 22,000 volumes, with particular space dedicated to historical biographies and narratives—plus a sporadic detective novel or two.
When he wasn’t studying policy and politically-related materials, FDR was famous for his obsession with poet Rudyard Kipling. The author himself was an infamous European imperialist, and it’s difficult to ignore the comparisons between some of FDR’s foreign-policy stances and these imperialistic sympathies. It’s even harder to dodge such comparisons with Kipling penning poems like “The White Man’s Burden” and “If,” versed rhapsodies on racial superiority and European male claims to world succession that FDR himself quoted as favorites.
Favorite Author: Leo Tolstoy
The Watergate scandal often mars Richard Nixon’s legacy. However, many in his life noted an almost school-boy reverence for reading displayed by the nation’s 37th president, as well as his high and low-brow reading tastes.
During his resignation farewell speech to certain White House staff, Nixon famously stated, “I am not educated, but I do read books.” This aptly sums up his reading attitude, which Nixon would squeeze in between White House meetings and executive duties, often taking notes and discussing literary passages with those around him.
Nixon’s Favorite Books and Authors
Nixon had a soft spot for Russian literature, but few were as monumental as his affinity for the works of Leo Tolstoy. Referring to himself as a Tolstoyan, Nixon first read Tolstoy’s works as a youth and then again as a career politician.
Nixon was also fond of books—both fiction and nonfiction—that mirrored cultural and political hot topics of the day. He would use these books as resources for foreign policy insights, namely his administration’s dealings with the Soviet Union. Nixon was a reported fan of conservative historians Robert Blake and Paul Johnson, as well as Winston Churchill’s Triumph and Tragedy, an account of the English war hero’s procedures at the Yalta Conference.
Favorite Book: Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October
Ronald Reagan was a dedicated reader and impassioned believer in lifelong learning, so much so that even his harshest critics had to admire him for it. He was also a staunch capitalist and affirmer of traditional law and order and “God-given” individual rights—values that wound themselves into Reagan’s national and international policies.
Like his predecessors, Reagan used books as tools to reference and better manage the issues that would define his administration. His presidency turned much of its attention to squelching Communism and disavowing foreign red states like the Soviet Union, East Germany, and China.
Reagan’s Favorite Books and Authors
Reagan’s core ideologies are unmistakably reflected in his literature choices. A diehard Tom Clancy fan, it was Reagan’s endorsement of The Hunt for Red October that catapulted the writing career of then insurance-agent Clancy. Reagan was said to read subsequent Clancy books to learn more about his Soviet Union opponent. The two became fast friends and confidants, with Clancy visiting Reagan at the White House.
The works of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand are also Reagan-approved. It’s not hard to see this affection reflected in the economic policies enacted during his presidency, including fiscal and ideological ones that strikingly parallel the plot ethos of many of Rand’s seminal works.
Rand is famous for developing a brand of philosophy known as objectivism. Throughout her bestselling novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, objectivism is on full display, weaving its philosophical tenets of individual achievement, productivity, and personal freedom as central plot themes.
Likewise, “Reaganomics”—the term dubbed for Reagan’s economic strategies employed during his eight-year term—upholds similar capitalistic and individualistic virtues.
Favorite Book: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
Between his famed late-night fast food runs and impromptu policy meetings, Bill Clinton found time for prodigious reading. It was Clinton’s ardent love for books, as well as open and often-employed name dropping of authors and works—old and new, fiction and nonfiction—that garnered the first real public interest in the literary tastes of presidents.
Clinton’s Favorite Books and Authors
Clinton’s taste in literary works is long and eclectic. Shortly following the end of his presidency in 2003, Clinton himself released a list of his top 21 favorite books of all-time and has since released updated and extended versions. Each list includes a variety of texts from philosophical treaties to lighthearted serial genres and fast-paced thrillers to poetry collections—just the sort of buffet you’d expect from a true bookworm.
Routinely cited works include Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Human Death, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Other favorites nod to his wife’s memoir Living History and one of the foremost texts on stoic living, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Favorite Books: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance
Few presidents have taken such an active and outspoken interest in literature as Barack Obama. The 44th president’s book tastes are rich and diverse, and it is not uncommon for he and former first lady Michelle Obama to endorse new releases as well as literary classics.
President Obama’s love for books was never more evident than when he routinely shared his vacation book lists with the press. What’s more, Barack and Michelle’s many book lists and recommendations fueled countless book clubs, reading circles, and even podcasts.
Obama’s Favorite Books and Authors
Obama is frequently quoted naming two works as his most influential: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance—which Obama reportedly first read in law school and is still considered a canonical essay on the American spirit. Additional works include Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin as well as the philosophical and theological works of Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Paul Tillich.
Obama is also fond of meeting and corresponding with his literary idols. He and his daughters penned a thank-you note to Yann Martel after reading his bestselling novel Life of Pi, and in 2012, he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to prolific author and cultural critic Toni Morrison.
Hatchette Book Group’s “Presidential Book Club Challenge”
The book lists are long, the genres expansive, and the authors diverse and multifaceted. You could easily dedicate months to reading just one book or author from each of these president’s lists.
So what are you waiting for?
A presidential book club is a great way to fuse history with literature. It challenges you to leap outside your literary comfort zone and bring these figures to thought-provoking life. In reading the very works the presidents have, you’re likely to unravel new tidbits—both political and personal—behind these monumental individuals, all while learning and growing yourself.
A few of Hachette Book Group’s favorite presidential book club challenges include:
- Book list challenge: Pick one book from each of the aforementioned president’s must-read lists. Go for their all-time favorite or sample a title that best fits your reading fancy.
- Biography challenge: Delve into your inner historian and read a biography—or autobiography—about all 45 United States presidents.
- Author challenge: Instead of opting for book titles themselves, explore the authors named above. Can you read one book by a favorite author of each of the aforementioned presidents?
Presidents and Their Favorite Publications: More Than Just a Pastime
We read for all sorts of reasons. As it turns out, so do our nation’s leaders.
Presidents’ favorite books and authors span literary genres and themes to be as diverse as America itself. Whether these beloved works lent ethical or moral guidance, inspired political policy, or contributed to the artistic and emotional value at the heart of the written word, literature has had an undeniable impact on U.S. presidents—and will continue to do so for years to come.
Just like Thomas Jefferson said, we—too—cannot live without books. Hachette Book Group lives and breathes all things bound, knowing your day wouldn’t be the same without its daily dose of literature. From children’s books and cooking guides to the latest genre thriller, browse Hatchette’s extensive collection of books and authors to grow your library today—and be in some good presidential company.