What Are They Reading? Michelle Obama Edition

By Arieh Ress, Adult Librarian
July 20, 2018
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)

Last month, I was fortunate to attend the opening session of The American Library Association’s Annual Conference in New Orleans. The conference started out in New Orleans style, with a few songs by the Trombone Shorty Foundation & Trombone Shorty Music Academy, led by Grammy-nominated, Coretta Scott King Book and Caldecott Honor Award winner, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews
He was followed by several speakers, including the first female mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, who brought the massive auditorium, filled to capacity with librarians, to its feet when she declared "Libraries are not just books, they are communities!"

Finally, it was time for the main event: Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden (see what she was reading in a 2017 interview) with former First Lady Michelle Obama, whose book Becoming will be released in 24 languages this November. While I usually conduct my own interviews for "What Are You Reading," my chances of landing a sit-down with Mrs. Obama are slim. Luckily, she answered many of the questions I usually ask in this series. (ALA photos courtesy the author.)

Michelle Obama’s love of the library started early: “I remember my first experience with going to the library. I was four and it was like the first official time I got an ID. You know: you felt like a big time person getting something with your name on it… That was sort of my first major big-girl thing I could do, was get my library card.”Mrs. Obama spent a lot of time in the colorful childrens section of the library down the street from her apartment in Chicago, reading the ubiquitous Babar and Dick and Jane books, and dreaming of the day she would "graduate" and be able to read the serious books upstairs in the adult section.

During high school, she didn’t stray far from the literary world, taking her first real job at Bob Goldman’s Book Bindery, as she explains her bindery work. "Take the metal thing, put it in the hole, pass it, repeat. All day, every day. After weeks of that I was ready for college!" 
But Mrs. Obama said she has nothing but respect for all the men and women who do that day in, day out so we can enjoy and better ourselves with books!

Once in the White House, it was hard for the First Lady to find time to read. She began to look forward to longer trips because, among other things, they provided her enough downtime to read. She spoke of the importance of self-care as well: it’s hard to make time for yourself when you are not only First Lady, but raising children to boot. You have to take the time to get away, and spend time on and with yourself.
"Reading helps me get out of my story for a bit and get into someone else's" she says. She shared that It’s vital not only for yourself, but for building the empathy, knowledge and understanding that make you a better parent and person.

So what does Mrs. Obama like to read?

PEN/Faulkner Award and Orange Prize winner Ann Patchett’s novel Commonwealth, the tale of a kiss at a wedding and the five decades of consequences that follow.

She loves anything by best-selling British author Zadie Smith who once said, "A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal."

Mohsin Hamid’s novel on emigration and the problems faced by refugees, Exit West, has been an especially important read for Mrs. Obama lately. "In this group," he writes, "everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was."

Kristin Hannah wrote The Nightingale as historical fiction about two sisters resisting the German occupation of France in World War II, having been inspired by the real life of a Belgian woman named Andrée de Jongh. The book is scheduled for a big-screen adaptation in early 2019.

Mrs. Obama is also a big fan of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work. Her TED Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story," has been viewed more than 15-and-a-half million times. "The single story creates stereotypes," Adichie says, "and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

As for her own book, Mrs. Obama describes it is "a rehumanization effort." People tend to hold their idols up and feel that their own stories don’t matter, or even exist.
"Feel pride in your story!," she urges. "I am not a unicorn. There's millions of kids just like I was out there. Everyone is trying to live their lives and do good.  We need to learn each other’s stories so we can humanize each other! There are people who do bad things but we are all just trying to work things out; empathy, openness and speaking to each other are vital!"


What celebrities or public figures are you curious about?
Whose book list would you like to read?
Let us know in the comments!