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Obama's 'Brave New World' and other books

August 20, 2011 | 10:21 am

Obamabook

On Friday, vacationing President Obama and his daughters headed to the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Martha's Vineyard, where he also came with Sasha and Malia on their 2010 holiday in the exclusive resort town off the Massachusetts coast.

Among the books reported to be in his stack was Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," which was probably for 13-year-old Malia, because it's required reading for students going into the eighth grade at Sidwell Friends, the private Quaker school the Obama children attend in Bethesda, Md.

Most likely, the title of Huxley's satrical dystopia -- in which humans are created in hatcheries, and everyone takes the drug soma to be happy -- came from lines in Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

Uttering them is the girl Miranda. Raised isolated on an island with her father, servants, an....

...enslaved savage and a spirit, she sees shipwrecked sailors on the shore. Amazed at the first new humans she has ever beheld, she exclaims, "How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in it!"

The phrase also appears in Rudyard Kipling's 1919 poem, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" (which was written long after "The Tempest" and may also have been influenced by the lines in it). In the verse, the British author decries the decline of his civilization. The "copybook headings" are proverbs appearing in the notebooks of 19th century British students, which children copied to practice their handwriting.

Saying, "And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins; When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins ... ," Kipling mourned the loss of traditional virtues and the rise of complacency.

All this, of course, is apropos of nothing because the book, if purchased at all, was probably bought for a school assignment and not for the president's personal reading.

But, according to a report on Saturday from a White House official, the president, in addition to getting books for his daughters, bought two for himself:  "The Bayou Trilogy," a collection of three novels featuring Louisiana boxer-turned-cop Det. Rene Shade, by "Winter's Bone" author Daniel Woodrell; and "Rodin's Debutante," by Ward Just, about the coming of age of a burgeoning artist in the middle of the 20th century in Chicago.

Obama also brought three books with him to read: "Cutting for Stone," a novel by Abraham Verghese; "To the End of the Land," a novel by David Grossman, and the nonfiction "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," by Isabel Wilkerson.

People have long been interested in what presidents read, as a barometer of taste or a window into thought processes.

The New York Times even cared when Obama was just a candidate in 2008, divining from a photo (at top) that he was partway into Fareed Zakaria's "The Post-American World."

In early 2009, the Washington Monthly had a group of notables suggest books for the new president.

At about this same time last year, the Daily Beast even had an Obama Book Club reading list; and FoxNews.com took a look at his vacation reading in Hawaii in December.

If Obama wishes to get insight into his possible GOP adversaries, there are books that can help with that. Newt Gingrich has written several, both on politics and history; Mitt Romney came out last year with "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness"; in February, Thaddeus McCotter's "Seize Freedom! American Truths and Renewal in a Chaotic Age" was released; Herman Cain has written a few books on politics and leadership; in 2006, Rick Santorum wrote "It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good"; and Ron Paul has written several books.

Recently announced candidate Rick Perry has also co-written a couple. Interestingly, the co-author of the most recent one, "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington" is Gingrich; and the co-author of his 2008 book, "On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For," is former presidential candidate Ross Perot.

Obama has also written books of his own, including his most recent, "Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters," published in November.

Finally, while the president plays a great deal of golf during and between vacations, thus far, he doesn't appear to read or write books about the game.

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-- Kate O'Hare

Media critic Kate O’Hare is a regular Ticket contributor. She also blogs about TV at Hot Cuppa TV and is a frequent contributor at entertainment news site Zap2it. Also follow O'Hare on Twitter @KateOH.

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Photo: Obama on the campaign trail in 2008. Credit: Doug Mills / New York Times

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