Barack Obama knows his books. The US president and accomplished memoirist has a well-documented appetite for reading that spans literature, history, popular fiction, and more.
In an interview (paywall) with Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times chief book critic, he revealed the titles he recommended to his own 18-year-old daughter, Malia, as she prepares to head off to college. They included a couple of revered staples of 20th-century literature: Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. But Obama also suggested some lesser-known classics that have served as rallying cries for feminists.
“Then there were some books I think that are not on everybody’s reading list these days, but I remembered as being interesting, like The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, for example. Or The Woman Warrior, by Maxine [Hong Kingston],” Obama said.
Published in 1962, in the middle of the Cold War, Lessing’s “feminist bible” and best-known work is about a woman who is a writer, mother, and leftist radical suffering a mental breakdown. Lessing herself denied that the work was feminist. It brims with rage against “any kind of singlemindedness, narrowness, obsession,” Lessing wrote on the book’s 50th anniversary, including political and religious fixations. But it came along around the beginning of feminism’s second wave, and was quickly adopted by feminists who saw in it a reflection of the ways they had felt stifled.
Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior came a bit later, in 1976, and blended the feminism and multiculturalism that were growing at the time. It told of a Chinese-American girl growing up in California. Her mother describes to her the low value placed on girls in China, while she tries to figure out her places in the world of white faces that surround her.
Both books are relevant and worthwhile reads for anyone today, but perhaps particularly so for a young woman, and one who is still a minority in her country. It’s heartening to see any father encourage his daughter to read them.