Barack Obama has released a list of his favourite books of 2020 as part of his annual tradition of sharing his curated round-up of recommendations, something he’s been doing since 2015 when he was still in office.
The former US president is known for being a voracious reader, as such the 17 titles, which he announced on Twitter and Instagram, are an electric range of fiction, non-fiction and memoir, and cover everything from race and segregation to the climate crisis.
In his social media post, he joked that he was “deliberately omitting what I think is a pretty good book”, his own, the bestselling memoir A Promised Land, and said of the titles: “I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I did”.
Most of the books selected are by American authors, with Emily St John Manel, a Canadian author, making the list with her novel The Glass Hotel.
His selection for 2019 similarly featured a broad range of leading titles, including Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which took both the literary and television world by storm following the BBC adaptation.
In order to help you decide which books you read in 2021, here’s a round-up of Barack Obama’s favourites. If the former president can read 17 books in a year, so can you!
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
‘Homeland Elegies’ by Ayad Akhtar, published by Tinder Press
Deftly blending fact and fiction, history and memory, Akhtar explores post-9/11 America. With compelling backstories about his immigrant parents and their experiences of the American dream, this is a story of a Muslim man’s relationship with his father. It works to dissect the erosion of truth, decency and hope in a country shaped by dept and money. Heralded as being “passionate, disturbing, unputdownable”, this clearly is a must-read. Pre-order now!
Buy now £13.68, Amazon
‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson, published by Virago
From the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and American National Humanities Medal comes Jack, an exploration into faith and pastoralism set in the richly imagined community of Gilead. Touching on themes of love, racism and religion in post-World War II small-town America, it’s a fraught love story between John and Della. Praised for being one of Robison’s greatest achievements, it’s no wonder this featured in Obama’s favourites.
Buy now £14.21, Blackwell’s
‘Caste’ by Isabel Wilkerson, published by Allen Lane
An eye-opening examination into how caste systems – from the Third Reich to the untouchables of India – paved the way for segregation and other institutions that mean that power is given to some, but not others. It’s a critique of the prejudicial systems that underpin modern society, delivered with passion and eloquence. Heralded by many as essential reading, Wilkerson indicates how we can – and must – move beyond the divisions within society, writing that “we are responsible for our own ignorance, or, with time, and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom.”
Buy now £16.00, WHSmith
‘Luster’ by Raven Leilani, published by Pan Macmillan
A sharp debut, Luster tells the story of Edie, a 23-year-old, and her awkward journey through modern life, navigating dead-end hookups and crush ambitions to an affair with a married man she met on a dating website. Touching on themes of womanhood, sexuality, power dynamics in relationships and race, as well as notions of loneliness and loss, Leilani is a new voice to pay attention to.
Buy now £13.94, Bookshop
‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’ by C Pam Zhang, published by Little, Brown Book Group
Taking a spot in the Booker Prize longlist, this is a beautiful and captivating story of grief, belonging and adventure. Set in the afterglow of the great American gold rush, it follows the lives and brutal journey of two immigrant orphaned teenage girls after the unexpected death of their father in a coal-mining town where they are unwanted. Visceral and deeply though-provoking, it re-examines the American Dream in a compelling and unique way.
Buy now £11.99, Amazon
‘Long Bright River’ by Liz Moore, published by Hutchinson
A crime thriller, Long Bright River takes a panoramic view of the opioid crisis in America and is a tale of desperation and addiction. With a compassionate and enthralling plot, it’s based on what life is like the wrong side of Philadelphia and is a mother’s search of her missing daughter.
Buy now £10.49, Amazon
‘Memorial Drive’ by Natasha Trethewey, published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Combing true crime with autobiography, Trethewey’s memoir is full of love and loss and traces her early life navigating racism in Sixties America through to her mother’s murder. A moving, yet poetic portrait of her mother, it’s an exploration into domestic abuse and bereavement written with wisdom and celebration of life.
Buy now £14.99, Waterstones
‘Twilight Democracy’ by Anne Applebaum, published by Penguin Books Ltd
This non-fiction title takes a look into the collapse of western democracy before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Through a collection of essays, it provides fresh insight into the raft of voices caught up in the turbulence of globalisation and nationalism in Europe and America.
Buy now £12.68, Blackwell’s
‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett, published by Little Brown
One of the most hotly anticipated books of 2020, Vanishing Half spans from the 1950s to 1990s, from the Deep South to California. It is a deftly woven plot that follows two twin sisters who take very different paths. Compelling and utterly original, Bennett covers serious questions of racism, social experiences and expectations, lies, love and compassion. We are sure that this tale will stay with you long after you've put it down. Make sure you finish it before the TV series is aired, as HBO snapped it up after a 17-way action; we told you it was a good'un.
Buy now £13.94, The Bookshop
‘Deacon King Kong’ by James McBride, published by Transworld Publishers Ltd
Set in 1949 in a housing project in south Brooklyn, Deacon King Kong is a story about how one community is under threat following an incident where 71-year-old Sportcoat shoots the project’s drug dealer, 19-year-old Deems Clemens. Equal parts humorous and heartbreaking, there’s a broad range of dazzling multicultural characters and it works to highlight the importance of communities – how fragile, yet vital they are.
Buy now £14.99, Waterstones
‘The Undocumented Americans’ by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, published by Penguin Random House
For all the political debate that surrounds them, it’s rare for immigrant Americans to share their life stories. In this decade-long piece of reporting, Villavicencio gives a voice to the undocumented people from across the US, from New York to Michigan and beyond. Bringing to life their remarkable stories of resilience and death, she touches on big questions of love, duty, family and survival. The Undocumented Americans has been nominated for the National Book Award for non-fiction.
Buy now £14.63, Amazon
‘The Glass Hotel’ by Emily St. John Mandel, published by Pan Macmillan
Six years after her award-winning novel Station Eleven comesThe Glass Hotel in which Mandel weaves together the lives of three characters, a bartender, hotel owner and shipping agent, to form a kaleidoscopic mystery. Genre-bending, it’s at once a thriller, a family saga, a ghost story, a murder mystery and an analysis of troubled roots in our troubled times.
Buy now £11.16, Blackwell’s
‘Hidden Valley Road’ by Robert Kolker, published by Quercus Publishing
Set at the end of the Second World War, Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream – Don’s work brought them to Colorado where their 12 children spanned the baby boom. But, behind the scenes, it’s a different story. Compelling, disturbing and riveting, Kolker’s account of the Galvin family – six of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia – is said to be an absorbing read into family history. Laced with shocking revelations, psychological breakdowns, violence and abuse, it uncovers the family’s suffering, love and hope.
Buy now £18.60, Bookshop
‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson, published by Little, Brown Book Group
Told entirely through fictional eye-witness accounts, Robinson paints a potentially frightening future owing to global heating. Drawing on a new international task force, which was founded to tackle the climate crisis and protect future generations, The Ministry for the Future explores technology, politics and the people who are driving these forces of change. An eye-opening and imaginative look at the challenges our planet faces.
Buy now £20.00, Book Depository
‘Sharks In The Time of Saviours’ by Kawai Strong Washburn, published by
Set in 1995 in Hawaii, Washburn’s powerful debut mixes ancient myth and magic with real-life contemporary issues. Telling the story of a poor Hawaiian family, struggling to make ends meet amidst the collapse of the sugar cane industry, the children are forced to seek salvation in the United States. Leaving behind their home and family, they're faced with the realities of modern society, in which Washburn deftly examines what it means to be both a place and a stranger in it.
Buy now £15.79, Bookshop
‘Missionaries’ by Phil Kay, published Canongate Books Ltd
A story about modern war and globalised violence, Missionaries tracks the lives and fates of a cast of characters across conflict zones, from Afghanistan to Columbia, it’s equal parts political and heartbreaking. If you enjoyed Klay’s Redeployment, a collection of short stories from 2014, this is for you.
Buy now £16.99, Waterstones
‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson, published by William Collins
Guiding us through the second world war, The Splendid and the Vile paints the portrait of the prime minister, Winston Churchill, and his defiance during this turbulent time. Larson gives a pervasive account of how the leader set about unifying a nation at its most vulnerable time. Mixing myth with reality, it draws on once-secret intelligence reports and diaries to take you out of today’s politics.
Buy now £20.00, Waterstones
If this doesn’t satiate your lust for reading, take a look at our round-up of the award-winning books of 2020