Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing my annual list of favorites — books, films, and music — with all of you. This has become a fun little tradition for me, and I hope it is for you, too. Because while each of us has plenty that keeps us busy—work and family life, social and volunteer commitments—outlets like literature and art can enhance our day-to-day experiences. They’re the fabric that helps make up a life—the album that lifts us up after a long day, the dog-eared paperback we grab off the shelf to give to a friend, the movie that makes us think and feel in a new way, works that simply help us escape for a bit. To start, here are the books that made the last year a little brighter for me. Most of them came out in 2019, but a few were older ones that were new to me this year. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
Barack Obama began recommending books in summer reading lists in 2009, the first year of his presidency. He added a multimedia scope in 2015, when the White House got an official Spotify account and began releasing playlists. “Your summer just got a little groovier,” said the White House press release. “When asked to pick a few of his favorite songs for the summer, the President got serious. He grabbed a pen and paper and drafted up not one, but two separate summer playlists: One for the daytime, and one for the evening.”
Before you get too impressed, note that these playlists were probably cribbed directly from Spotify’s most played tracks by users over 40, running the gamut from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley. But this curatorial streak would become a trademark, particularly of Obama’s social media presence.
In 2017, just before leaving office, Obama tweeted “Thank you for everything. My last ask is the same as my first. I'm asking you to believe — not in my ability to create change, but in yours.” A month later, he was embroiled in a “kitesurf vs foilboard learning contest” with telecom billionaire Richard Branson.
Challenged @barackobama to a kitesurf vs foilboard learning contest – here’s what happened https://t.co/5hwjOvy2TKpic.twitter.com/wEGSjL2TAr— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) February 7, 2017
By spring, Citizen Obama was raking in $400,000 a pop for speeches on Wall Street. At the end of the year, he posted his first post-presidential lists on Facebook. “With some extra time on my hands this year to catch up, I wanted to share the books and music that I enjoyed most,” he said. By the time the list appeared again the next year, midway through the Trump administration, it was received with breathless acclaim. “Barack Obama Reminded Us What It's Like To Have a President Who Reads,” said a headline in Esquire. A post at Literary Hub said, “it can be hard to think about the fact that we used to have a thoughtful, curious, intelligent man leading this country, and that now we do not.” Much of the coverage of his lists at various publications has noted their overlap with best-of lists by the publications themselves, as though this were a meaningful coincidence rather than the point of the exercise.
The contrast is, of course, real. President Trump shows no such cultural literacy, or even general literacy, though he has recommended the occasional book on his Twitter feed. These have included Resistance (At All Costs): How Trump Haters Are Breaking America by Kim Strassel, The Plot Against the President: The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History by Lee Smith, and Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us by Donald Trump, Jr. — all notable solely for their favorability to Trump himself.
Just finished reading my son Donald’s just out new book, “Triggered.” It is really good! He, along with many of us, was very unfairly treated. But we all fight back, and we always win!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 9, 2019
Which has just made Obama seem smarter, cooler, and more honorable. This year, his lists were anticipated before they even appeared. An article in the New York Times by Jay Ruttenberg, in advance of the Obama lists’ publication, went as far as to describe the former president’s good taste as a saving grace of cultural criticism, in the context of the contemporary decline of media. “Barack Obama, music critic, has become an unlikely balm, his beautifully detailed lists acting as strange flickers of continuity and survival,” says Ruttenberg. “In his Cardi B fandom, he remains a figure of hope.”
In tribute to Obama’s cultural savvy, Ruttenberg quotes a sentence the former president wrote describing Aretha Franklin’s singing, which he had submitted to The New Yorker upon Franklin’s death in 2018: “It captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.” This is indeed a meaningful quotation, and not because it has any particular meaning. Note that it has very little to do with Aretha Franklin; you wouldn’t know it was about her if I hadn’t told you. In fact, it could be describing nearly anything to which former U.S. President Barack Obama wanted to give a favorable description. It is the kind of political rhetoric you would expect of a politician in a movie, one who is never specified as belonging to a particular party to avoid alienating viewers, and who gives stirring cinematic speeches that advocate no actual policy or ideology.
This is very much the purpose of Obama’s latest lists, released in the last days of 2019. The musical entry holds critical favorites like Big Thief, Sharon Van Etten, and The National, consensus superstars like Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé, and curveballs like DaBaby. Of course, it includes “Old Town Road.” His favorite movies include everything that has been obsessed over in Twitter feeds, yours and mine, for the past weeks: Parasite, The Irishman, Marriage Story. But it also includes American Factory, a movie he himself produced, in a deal with Netflix for an unpublicized dollar amount that is almost certainly in the tens or hundreds of millions. A short list of best TV shows includes Fleabag, the first season of which included a scene in which Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s protagonist masturbates to a video of an Obama speech. This provided an opportunity for an instance of the worst phenomenon of modern life: tweet replies from brands.
The feeling is mutual. #Fleabagpic.twitter.com/iniY8oxJh9— Fleabag (@fleabag) December 29, 2019
If there is something masturbatory about this whole process, it takes a weird turn in his list of books. That one also includes critical favorites, by Ben Lerner, Jia Tolentino, Jenny Odell, and Sally Rooney, plus standard dad fare like William Dalrymple. But at the very top of the list is a book that implicates Obama himself: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. The titular condition, one of the invasion of privacy carried out by corporate technological development and made use of by political institutions, is one that unfolded in large part under Obama’s jurisdiction.
Zuboff describes Obama’s campaigns and administrations as carrying out “a multipronged effort that deflects scrutiny from core operations in order to maintain the flow of free, unregulated behavioral surplus.” She notes the “revolving door of personnel who migrated between Google and the Obama administration, united by elective affinities during Google’s crucial growth years of 2009–2016.” This, she says, factored into “Google’s intentional campaign of influence over academic work and the larger cultural conversation so vital to policy formation, public opinion, and political perception.”
The book’s references to Obama focus on his electoral strategy, but his record on surveillance, and its capitalist overtones, goes further. It is epitomized by something so on-the-nose it seems like a joke or an espionage thriller subplot: a secret government program called PRISM. We know about PRISM because its existence was leaked by Edward Snowden and reported on by the Washington Post and the Guardian in 2013. As Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras summarized at the Post, “The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.” The NSA obtained this data from arrangement with Silicon Valley megacorporations including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.
PRISM was founded during the George W. Bush administration, as part of a widespread erosion of civil liberties under the Protect America Act. While Obama campaigned with criticism of the Bush Doctrine, his administration took full advantage of the powers it secured for the executive branch. Many of these Bush-era policies, like the Patriot Act and amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, were extended or amplified by Obama.
For optimistic liberals, it was different. Bush was an idiot redneck, but Obama, the constitutional law professor who spent an hour reading at the White House each night and knew Beyoncé personally, could be trusted with those powers. “I don’t think President Bush would have been able to expand the drone campaign in the way that Obama eventually did,” former ACLU deputy director Jameel Jaffer told the Atlantic. “Now we’ve invested all this power in the presidency, and all that power will be available to President Trump and whoever comes after President Trump.”
It was no accident. Obama entrenched those policies even further on his way out the door, before handing the keys to Donald Trump. “In its final days, the Obama administration has expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 16 other intelligence agencies,” the New York Times reported. The allure of Obama’s cultural sophistication created a blind spot, and the consequences continue to reverberate.
Barack Obama is good at this stuff — his lists hit the right notes, and he can discuss his cultural consumption convincingly. It has been less convincing from other politicians who have attempted it. Hillary Clinton’s star-studded endorsement list did not manage to win hearts and minds. During last year’s Democratic primary buildup, the Times offered a forensic analysis of each candidate’s campaign songs. Most impressive were Kamala Harris’s, heavy on hip-hop, and Beto O’Rourke’s, with a Gen-X alternative streak — both really did seem hand-curated by the respective candidates. Neither candidate remains in the race.
What makes Obama good at this? He probably has a staff helping him out, but his erudition and good taste are also fairly genuine. After all, he wrote two books himself, including one decent one, and was once a college professor. His intelligence coincided with a particular kind of politicization of tastemaking over the course of the 2010s. List-making has often been seen as the province of nerd culture, epitomized by self-referential touchstones like the book and movie High Fidelity, in which the protagonist proclaims in a fourth-wall breaking comment, “what really matters is what you like, not what you're like.”
Lately, this mindset has moved from the comic book store to the public square, as a convenient substitute for politics within the performative mode of liberalism. Taking “representation matters” or “empowerment” at the surface level, consuming the right cultural products and hitting the correct notes in cocktail conversation can be rendered equivalent to ethical political action. If the market offers you the appropriate points of reference, even multimillion-dollar Disney products, you can simply choose them.
There is a difference between what you like and what you’re like that is easily observable in someone who once held the highest office in the country. While Barack Obama reads about surveillance capitalism, Donald Trump presides over an executive office that holds the power to enforce it. It’s thanks to Obama he has it.