Barack Obama on The Three-Body Problem and Other Meaningful Books

Barack Obama, avid reader of science fiction and fantasy during his two terms as president, recently sat down with the New York Times’ chief book critic Michiko Kakutani to discuss the impact that books have had on him throughout his lifetime. It started at a young age, he explained: “I loved reading when I was a kid, partly because I was traveling so much, and there were times where I’d be displaced, I’d be the outsider. […] And so the idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing to me.”

Obama, author of the memoir Dreams from My Father, The Audacity of Hope, and the children’s book Of Thee I Sing, began by writing short stories during his time doing organizing work in New York City: “not a lot of Jack Kerouac, open-road, young kid on the make discovering stuff,” he told Kakutani. “It’s more melancholy and reflective.” While his eight years as president did not afford him much time for writing fiction, he nonetheless found a creative outlet through journaling and speechwriting: “The main writing that I’ve done during the presidency has been my speeches, the ones at least that were important to me.”

The two discussed a number of books that have stuck with Obama, including Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu), and the transporting power of reading:

And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

What are some of those books?

It’s interesting, the stuff I read just to escape ends up being a mix of things — some science fiction. For a while, there was a three-volume science-fiction novel, the “Three-Body Problem” series —

Oh, Liu Cixin, who won the Hugo Award.

— which was just wildly imaginative, really interesting. It wasn’t so much sort of character studies as it was just this sweeping —

It’s really about the fate of the universe.

Exactly. The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty — not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade. [Laughter]

He’s also a fan of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (“a well-constructed, well-written book”) and has counted William Shakespeare as one of his literary touchstones over the past eight years. You can read the transcript of the entire interview here.

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