Michelle Obama Photo Credit : Jillian Tamaki
The former first lady, whose new memoir is “Becoming,” admires Zadie Smith’s novel “White Teeth” for its complexity and humor: “Even if a book takes on serious topics, I think it should still be fun to read.”
What books are on your nightstand?
I’ve usually got a pile of books next to me when I sleep, each of them at varying levels of completion. On my nightstand right now, there’s “Educated,” by Tara Westover; “An American Marriage,” by Tayari Jones; “Exit West,” by Mohsin Hamid; “White Teeth,” by Zadie Smith; and Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth.” I’ve also got an autographed copy of Nelson Mandela’s “Conversations With Myself.” It’s a collection of his writings and speeches, an extension of sorts to “Long Walk to Freedom.” I like to flip through it from time to time because it always seems to give me an extra boost when I need it. I cherish this both because it was signed by him and because he gave it to me as a gift when my family visited his home in 2011.
When and where do you like to read?
I don’t have much time to read at home, so I get most of my reading done when I travel. I spend a lot of long plane rides reading, and I love to devour books whenever I’m on vacation.
What was the last great book you read?
“White Teeth.” I’d read it years ago but picked it up again recently because Malia is a big fan of Zadie and her work. I love the way the story weaves together so many complex and powerful forces that affect our lives and our relationships family and parenting, religion and politics, and so much more. Plus, it’s just plain funny. I love books that make me laugh every now and then. It’s something I hoped to do with my memoir, “Becoming,” because even if a book takes on serious topics, I think it should still be fun to read.
Are you a rereader? What books do you return to again and again?
I guess the answer is both yes and no. For most of my adult life, I haven’t had a lot of time to reread books, no matter how much I loved them. My days were scheduled down to the minute in the White House, but even before then, I was balancing a demanding career with two little girls and a husband who was often traveling back and forth to Washington, D.C., or the Illinois State Capitol. So, with limited reading time, I preferred to read new books.
But even with all of that said, yes, there are a few books that I’ve read more than once. When my daughters were younger, I tagged along with some of the books they’d been reading in class. For instance, I’ve now read Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” three times. I reread “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Life of Pi” with the girls, too. Now that they’re older, we do less of it, but it was nice for a while to have a little Obama family book club.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading?
I’m pretty open to any form I just want it to be good. I find that I often gravitate to fiction, books where I can lose myself in a new world. I’ve spent a large part of the last decade reading briefing materials and studying up on issues like global girls’ education, children’s health or military family policies. Those are all interesting topics to me, of course, but when I get time to read on my own, I prefer something that provides a bit of an escape. That said, I don’t need to escape too much I’m not looking to travel to outer space or a fantasy world. Science fiction isn’t really for me.
Thankfully, I have a collection of reader-friends who keep me abreast of all the latest books and up-and-coming writers. My chief of staff is always in the middle of a new book, and of course Barack still devours books like he has since I met him. So that means I’m never really at a loss for suggestions on what to read next.
So what are you reading next?
“Educated,” by Tara Westover. This one came from Barack. I actually just finished it, and it is as phenomenal as he and everyone else says it is. It’s an engrossing read, a fresh perspective on the power of an education, and it’s also a testament to the way grit and resilience can shape our lives. Also, since I’ve just finished a memoir of my own, I love to see how people choose to tell their own story the small moments that tell larger truths, the character development, the courage it takes to tell a story fully. Tara’s upbringing was so different from my own, but learning about her world gave me insight into lives and experiences that weren’t a part of my own journey. To me, it’s an example of the extraordinary power of storytelling.
What were your favorite books as a child? Did you have a favorite character or hero?
Pippi Longstocking was my girl. I loved her strength not just her physical power, but the idea that she wouldn’t allow her voice to be diminished by anyone. She’s independent, clever and adventurous and she’s clearly a good person, someone who always does right by her friends. What I loved most was that she was a girl, and she was a little different, and she was still the most powerful character in those books.
Maybe some people find it odd for Pippi Longstocking, with her red pigtails and freckled skin, to be a role model for a black girl on the South Side of Chicago. But when I was young, there were so few prominent characters who looked like me. There was no Doc McStuffins on TV, no “Black Panther” on the big screen. So once I had kids of my own, I liked to find stories with characters who looked like my girls but at the same time the stories didn’t have to be centered on race. One of our favorites was “The Snowy Day,” by Ezra Jack Keats. It’s a simple story about the adventures of a boy on a snowy day. He makes snow angels, slides down a snow pile and gets smacked by a snowball. It’s a boy who happened to be black and who happened to live in the city. He’s a kid just being a kid, and that’s enough.