What to Read Next (No. 200): a new Obama book + a few outdoorsy reads

For 200 Fridays in a row I have sent this newsletter to your inboxes. Old books, new books, bookish lists, amazing interviews—it’s been a true joy. This endeavor started small, as these types of things do, and now there’s about 4,000 of you seeing this on a weekly basis. Incredible!

Hopefully you’ve not only gotten some good book recs, but also a bit of inspiration to read more, no matter your tastes.

Let me just say one thing before moving on: THANK YOU! Email newsletters have, quite unexpectedly, proliferated in the last ~4 years and it means a lot that you’ve given this bookish piece of writing some space in your inbox.

Let’s get to the good stuff.

The Black President: Hope and Fury in the Age of Obama by Claude Clegg

Published: 2021 | Pages: 494

Five years out, we’re just now reaching a point where Obama-era books are being written by historians rather than journalists. It’s a big difference: journalists are usually telling a story for the first time, uncovering new facts and plot points, adding dramatic flair along the way; historians, on the other hand, are more about analyzing and placing those facts and plot points into a broader context.

Dr. Claude Clegg, professor of African American Studies at UNC, is among the first of that latter group to study our 44th president, Barack Hussein Obama.

Part I, about 100 pages, was a narrative of Obama’s pre-POTUS life, from childhood to his election. Parts II and III were written thematically, each chapter covering one aspect of Obama’s presidency. This sampling of chapter titles gives you an idea of what Clegg takes a close look at:

  • “Bamelot” — Obama’s Black cabinet members; a play on JFK’s famous “Camelot” cabinet)

  • “Dancing with the Caucus” — Obama’s relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus

  • “Guess Who’s Coming to Tea” — the Tea Party movement, and especially its Black members

  • “Signifier in Chief” — Black culture in the White House

  • “If I Had a Son” — Obama’s response to the rash of Black men shot and killed by bystanders and police, focused especially Trayvon Martin

In general, it’s not a format I particularly enjoy. When it comes to politics, I’m of the belief that a chronological narrative is the better, more entertaining route to go.

There are definitely some gems within, particularly when Clegg is discussing Obama’s more pragmatic and political tendencies. It was also surprisingly readable for being a 500-page, academically-focused book.

But overall, I was a touch disappointed. It’s likely that my expectations were too high and that I didn’t fully realize the somewhat narrow scope of Clegg’s project, which was to examine Obama’s Blackness in the White House.

Lasting takeaway: Regardless of Barack Obama’s policy and political contributions—which I think history will see more and more positively—his election as our first Black president is likely his most important legacy. He is perhaps one of America’s most important presidents for that reason alone.

Who should read this book: People deeply interested in American politics and Black history. General readers should probably look at a different title (The Bridge or Dreams from My Father) for a primer on President Obama’s life and legacy; this is more of a 201 course than a 101.

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A Trio of Outdoorsy Adventure Books

A Window to Heaven by Patrick Dean. This epic tale combines the first successful summiting of Denali (I love the “first ascent” sub-genre of adventure stories) with the “muscular Christianity” movement of the early 20th century. Utterly fascinating and a must-read for fans of history and the outdoors.

Though the other two books on this list are classics of the genre, this one is more readable and consistently entertaining. How’s that for a hot take.

Endurance by Alfred Lansing. When it comes to all-time adventure classics, few books are as widely mentioned as Lansing’s 1959 account of Ernest Shackleton’s brutal experience in Antarctica. This may be a case of a book simply being overhyped, but I was disappointed by Lansing’s simplistic explanations and overly heroic tone. (“One my favorite books ever” is something I’ve heard a few times about this one.) I don’t know what it was, but this one just didn’t land for me.

The Cruise of the Snark by Jack London. There are a handful of brilliant chapters, but also quite a few that meander. It’s a short read though, so it’s worth it if you’re into Jack London’s style and earnest appreciation for adventure and seafaring.

Again, thank you SO MUCH for your support over the last few years. It means so much to me and please know that I enjoy writing every word of this newsletter.