WASHINGTON » President Barack Obama has never visited the rugged mountains of Chechnya, but if he digs into one of the novels he bought last weekend, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," he will be transported to a land of unremitting violence and tragedy, where the innocent are caught up in war as often as the guilty.
Perhaps Obama is seeking a deeper understanding of the roots of the ethnic bloodletting after Chechnya vaulted back to the front pages this year with the Boston Marathon bombings. Or perhaps he is thinking about his troubled relationship with Russia.
Either way, the novel would give the president a more visceral feel for one of the world’s most brutal conflicts than the graphic intelligence papers that cross his desk.
"I imagine someone in his position gets a lot of facts and figures," Anthony Marra, the author of the book, mused the other day. "But the novel is really about the experience, about the psyche and the soul."
A reading list offers a rare window into the presidential mind, a peek at what a commander in chief may be thinking about beyond the prosaic and repetitive briefings that dominate his days. The books on the White House night stand provide relief, escape or inspiration. At times they can influence a president’s approach to the crises and challenges he confronts.
Many of the nearly two dozen volumes Obama picked up at Washington’s Politics and Prose bookstore will be gifts, and certainly children’s tales like "Harold and the Purple Crayon" offer few lessons for dealing with Tea Party congressmen. But even if they are given away, some of the books reflect what Obama has already read or would like to read. They are volumes about identity and reinvention, about what it means to be American, and about family, love, betrayal and redemption.
Unlike many of his predecessors, who devoured U.S. history and biographies, Obama’s tastes lean toward the literary, in keeping with a man whose first memoir deeply explored issues of race and self. While Obama has read his share of Abraham Lincoln, he seems more intent on breaking out, mentally at least, from what Harry S. Truman once called the crown jewel of the American penal system.
One of Obama’s more intriguing choices was Jhumpa Lahiri’s "The Lowland," about two brothers from India, one who comes to build a new life in America and the other who becomes ensnared in politics back home. Lahiri said Obama may relate to his own conflicting paths as the son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas.
"He has a sort of double vision of America as I do, as many people do, many people who have been both brought up and bred within America but also have a different perspective of the country," Lahiri said. "In a sense, part of him comes from outside America, and he embodies both that contradiction and that richness."
Another presidential choice, Julie Otsuka’s novel "The Buddha in the Attic," explores issues of immigrants and America as it chronicles the tale of Japanese women brought to the United States as "picture brides" for migrant workers, only to have their families wind up in World War II internment camps.
"If anyone knows what it’s like to be an outsider from very, very difficult circumstances and someone who had to go back and forth between cultures," it is Obama, Otsuka said.
The book choices of previous White House occupants offer similar looks into presidential thought.
A re-elected Richard M. Nixon was inspired to ask his Cabinet to write letters of resignation after rereading Robert Blake’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli, said Tevi Troy, a former aide to George W. Bush who has made a study of what presidents have consumed in popular culture. Bill Clinton consumed nonfiction, including biography, history and volumes about the emerging information economy of his era.
Bush was more of a reader than many Americans imagined – he had reading contests with Karl Rove, his top political adviser, measured not just by the number of books finished, but the cumulative number of pages and even square inches of text. He was particularly drawn to Lincoln, reading 14 books about the Civil War president while in office.
His reading at times had impact. Natan Sharansky’s book, "The Case for Democracy," helped inform Bush’s second-term focus on spreading freedom around the world.
And Alistair Horne’s history of the war in Algeria, "A Savage War of Peace," taught Bush that more people died after the French withdrew – reinforcing his own reluctance to pull out of Iraq.
"Obama’s book selections have been harder to read," said Troy, the author of "What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted."
But as he prepares to pull most U.S. troops out of Afghanistan next year, Obama picked up Khaled Hosseini’s "The Kite Runner" and James Salter’s evocative "All That Is," a story of a World War II naval officer turned book editor searching for love.
Marra’s book was one of two Obama selected set in Russia, the other being Jason Matthews’ "Red Sparrow," a spy thriller in Vladimir V. Putin’s Moscow.
"You’d think after he picks up the president’s daily briefing, the last thing he’d want to read is a spy novel," said Matthews, who spent 33 years in the CIA.
Obama, who once joked that he had so little time for reading that "I basically floss my teeth and watch ‘SportsCenter,’" also bought Nicholas Dawidoff’s "Collision Low Crossers," about life in the National Football League, and David Epstein’s "The Sports Gene," about the science of athletic performance.
In selecting Cheryl Strayed’s "Wild," her memoir of losing her mother, her marriage and almost herself until she takes a 1,000-mile backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail, Obama may identify with her interior journey.
"I think President Obama has really searched his soul in the way that writers do," Strayed said. "I certainly, like many people, identify with Obama’s journey. He’s really had a lot of people who loved him well, who had a lot of teachers. But he’s really a self-made man. So much of ‘Wild’ is about how we ultimately have to make ourselves."