In January 1989, as George H.W. Bush was being sworn into the office of the US presidency, Americans were reading Anne Rice, Tom Clancy, and Toni Morrison. They also were boning up on finance—that month, Donald Trump’s 1987 Art of the Deal was at the top of the New York Times’ nonfiction paperback bestsellers list.
A look at what US readers are buying almost 30 years later offers a glimpse into the moment we live in: Hillbilly Elegy, a bestseller no one saw coming, is spending its 25th week on the hardcover nonfiction list since it was released last June. The memoir by J. D. Vance, a former marine, has been cited over and over as a book that helps readers on one side of the political divide understand an overlooked, and perhaps underestimated, subset of Americans who helped elect Trump president.
Three Days in January, about the final three days of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, is also a top 10 bestseller, along with a memoir by Carrie Fisher, published one month before she died in December.
The New York Times’ hardcover nonfiction bestsellers from inauguration weeks past show a US periodically preoccupied with its own history, and the executive office itself. (Publishers and authors are likely a factor in this; they may ramp up their marketing at a time they know people will be thinking about the presidency and the nation’s past.) When Lyndon B. Johnson was inaugurated in November 1963, following the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, an Eisenhower book about the presidency was a bestseller. In 1973, when Richard Nixon was being inaugurated for the second time, readers were buying a book about president Harry S. Truman, written by his daughter.
The bestseller lists also offer other slices of history. A look back shows how Americans have moved from one diet fad to the next, for example—and in some cases back again, as with the Atkins diet. Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution was a bestseller when Nixon was inaugurated in 1973; it enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the early 2000s.
We looked at The New York Times’ nonfiction lists for the week leading up to each inauguration day since Eisenhower’s first term. The newspaper’s lists are tallied by editors based on reporting from their bookseller contacts, not on raw sales data. And their methodology for compiling the data has changed over time, as the editors have expanded from just two lists (“fiction” and “general”) to include separate lists for paperbacks, children’s books, ebooks, and how-to. We’ve done our best to only provide lists of nonfiction hard-cover bestsellers, which today are reported two weeks after the fact.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953)
1. Tallulah, by Tallulah Bankhead
2. Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version
3. A Man Called Peter, by Catherine Marshall
4. The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale
5. Abraham Lincoln, by Benjamin P. Thomas
The year Eisenhower took office, a book about Abraham Lincoln was selling big, as was the Bible. The self-help book The Power of Positive Thinking, by minister Norman Vincent Peale, was also a bestseller, following its release in 1952. Trump has recommended the book.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1957)
1. The Nun’s Story, by Kathryn Hulme
2. This Hallowed Ground, by Bruce Catton
3. Much Ado about Me, by Fred Allen
4. Men to Match my Mountains, by Irving Stone
5. The FBI Story, by Don Whitehead
For Eisenhower’s second inauguration, a history of the American civil war, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Bruce Catton, was selling. At the same time, readers were buying a book by writer Irving Stone, released the previous September, about the California gold rush.
John F. Kennedy (1961)
1. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer
2. The Waste Makers, by Vance Packard
3. The Snake Has All the Lines, by Jean Kerr
4. Who Killed Society?, by Cleveland Amory
5. Baruch: The Public Years, by Bernard M. Baruch
Following the cultural conservatism of the 1950s, the US elected its first Catholic president, the young Democrat John F. Kennedy. Two top books in the country were The Waste Makers, an anti-consumerism title, and Who Killed Society? by animal-rights activist Cleveland Amory.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963)
1. JFK: The Man and the Myth, by Victor Lasky
2. The American Way of Death, by Jessica Mitford
3. Rascal, by Sterling North
4. The White House Years: Mandate for Change 1953-1956, by Dwight D. Eisenhower
5. The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
Following the assassination of JFK in 1963, vice president Johnson was quickly sworn in. That week, a book by conservative writer Victor Lasky, critical of JFK, was popular. So were an Eisenhower book about his presidency and James Baldwin’s classic civil-rights book, written in the form of two letters.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1965)
1. Markings, by Dag Hammarskjöld
2. Reminiscences, by Douglas MacArthur
3. The Italians, by Luigi Barzini
4. The Founding Father, by Richard J. Whalen
5. The Kennedy Wit, by Bill Adler
For Johnson’s 1965 inauguration, an autobiography by US general Douglas MacArthur and a book about JFK’s father, Joseph, were popular. So was a book filled with funny quotes from JFK.
Richard Nixon (1969)
1. The Money Game, by Adam Smith
2. Instant Replay, by Jerry Kramer
3. Memoirs: Sixty Years on the Firing Line, by Arthur Krock
4. On Reflection: An Autobiography, by Helen Hayes with Sandford Dody
5. The Arms of Krupp, by William Manchester
Nixon was elected during the deeply unpopular war between the US and Vietnam, not long after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. A book about Wall Street by George Goodman, aka Adam Smith, was a bestseller, as was a memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Arthur Krock, who was a confidant to presidents.
Richard Nixon (1973)
1. The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam
2. I’m O.K.—You’re O.K., by Thomas Harris
3. Harry S. Truman, by Margaret Truman
4. Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, by Robert Atkins
5. Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye: Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, by Kenneth P. O’Donnell, David F. Powers, and Joe McCarthy
During Nixon’s second inauguration, a book critical of JFK’s Vietnam War policies was selling well, as was a book about president Harry S. Truman. Readers were also buying a book about the Atkins diet, first published in 1972, and the family psychology book I’m OK — You’re OK.
Gerald Ford (1974)
1. All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
2. The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
3. Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, by Piers Paul Read
4. The Memory Book, by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas
5. You Can Profit from a Monetary Crisis, by Harry Browne
Ford became president after Nixon resigned from office. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the week he was inaugurated, All the President’s Men, by the two journalists who broke the Watergate scandal, was a bestseller.
Jimmy Carter (1977)
1. Roots, by Alex Haley
2. Passages, by Gail Sheehy
3. Blind Ambition, by John W. Dean III
4. Your Erroneous Zones, by Wayne W. Dyer
5. The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank, by Erma Bombeck
Political and cultural upheaval during the 1970s ushered in Jimmy Carter in the latter part of the decade. Readers were buying up Blind Ambition, by lawyer John W. Dean about his time in the Nixon White House, and Roots, the basis of the iconic TV adaptation about the American slave trade.
Ronald Reagan (1981)
1. Cosmos, by Carl Sagan
2. Crisis Investing, by Douglas R. Casey
3. Side Effects, by Woody Allen
4. Peter the Great, by Robert K. Massie
5. Goodbye, Darkness, by William Manchester
Along with the 1980s came Ronald Reagan, an economic recession, and a book about investing during crisis times. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was selling, as was a collection of essays by Woody Allen.
Ronald Reagan (1985)
1. Iacocca: An Autobiography, by Lee Iacocca with William Novak
2. Loving Each Other, by Leo Buscaglia
3. Pieces of my Mind, by Andrew A. Rooney
4. Moses the Kitten, by James Herriot
5. The Good War, by Studs Terkel
At the start of Reagan’s second term, an autobiography by auto executive Lee Iacocca—another Trump recommendation—was a bestseller. A book by liberal radio personality Studs Terkel, about World War II, was also selling well, along with a book by journalist Andy Rooney.
George H.W. Bush (1989)
1. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum
2. A Brief History of Time, by Stephen W. Hawking
3. Gracie, by George Burns
4. Child Star, by Shirley Temple Black
5. A Bright Shining Lie, by Neil Sheehan
When Reagan’s vice president took over in the Oval Office, a series of essays by minister Robert Fulghum, first published in 1986, was a national bestseller, as was the first general-audience book by physicist Stephen Hawking. (A week later, in nonfiction paperbacks Trump himself was selling big.)
Bill Clinton (1993)
1. The Way Things Ought to Be, by Rush H. Limbaugh III
2. Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
3. It Doesn’t Take a Hero, by H. Norman Schwarzkopf with Peter Petre
4. The Te of Piglet, by Benjamin Hoff
5. Truman, by David McCullough
When Clinton was elected in 1992, the US culture wars were raging. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh was at his height, and his first book was a bestseller. So was a book about “the instinctual nature of women” by Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés.
Bill Clinton (1997)
1. A Reporter’s Life, by Walter Cronkite
2. Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt
3. Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsch
4. The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko
5. My Sergei, by Ekaterina Gordeeva With E. M. Swift
The autobiography of network anchorman Walter Cronkite, who brought the nation the news of JFK’s assassination, was selling in the US as Clinton took office for the second time.
George W. Bush (2001)
1. An Hour before Daylight, by Jimmy Carter
2. The O’Reilly Factor, by Bill O’Reilly
3. Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom
4. The Darwin Awards, by Wendy Northcutt
5. Maestro, by Bob Woodward
By the time George W. Bush was elected to the presidency in 2000, Bill O’Reilly had become an important conservative political pundit. The O’Reilly Factor was one of the first among his many books, which would become mainstays on nonfiction bestseller lists until today.
George W. Bush (2005)
1. Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell
2. Witness, by Amber Frey
3. Collapse, by Jared Diamond
4. America (The Book), by Jon Stewart, Ben Karlin, and David Javerbaum
5. God’s Politics, by Jim Wallis
By Bush’s second term, he and the country had been rocked by 9/11. Geographer Jared Diamond’s book about the collapse of societies was selling well, and so was a satirical book about the US by TV personality Jon Stewart. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell was out with his second book, Blink, about how we make decisions.
Barack Obama (2009)
1. Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
2. Guilty, by Ann Coulter
3. Dewey, by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter
4. Too Fat to Fish, by Artie Lange with Anthony Bozza
5. American Lion, by Jon Meacham
Gladwell was on another streak by the time the US welcomed its first black president. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter was out with one of her many books slamming American liberals, and the country had a cat-related bestseller in Dewey, about a “small-town library cat.”
Barack Obama (2013)
1. My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor
2. Killing Kennedy, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
3. Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright
4. No Easy Day, by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer
5. Killing Lincoln, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
As Obama was inaugurated for the second time, No Easy Day, a military memoir about the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, was a bestseller. So was US Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, and two books from Bill O’Reilly’s series about the end of famous figures.
Donald Trump (2017)
1. Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
2. Three Days in January, by Bret Baier with Catherine Whitney
3. Killing the Rising Sun, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
4. The Magnolia Story, by Chip Gaines and Joanna Gaines with Mark Dagostino
5. The Book of Joy, by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu