What Books Should Biden Read? We Asked 22 Writers

On Jan. 20, Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States. From that day forward, he will face countless challenges, including a divided nation, a global pandemic and an increasingly uncertain future.

We posed the following question to 22 writers and public figures: “What book would you recommend Joe Biden read to inform his presidency?” Here are their answers.

Madeleine Albright recommends

‘The Art of the Impossible,’ by Václav Havel

“Thirty years ago, Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, a country both energized by democratic hopes and wounded by political and cultural division. His collected speeches reflect an idea of leadership that transcends party and is grounded instead in forgiveness, morality and truth. After years of deception in high places, he told citizens in his first major address, ‘I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.’”

Madeleine Albright is the former U.S. secretary of state and author of, most recently, “Hell and Other Destinations.”

Alicia Garza recommends

‘Stamped From the Beginning,’ by Ibram X. Kendi

“Kendi describes the long trajectory of racist ideas that have shaped policy for generations. President-elect Biden will need depth in understanding that racism isn’t ever about people being mean to each other — instead, racism is about rigged rules that intentionally thwart access to power and resources for those who have been designated as ‘other.’ It would be my hope that this book would guide his decisions on cabinet appointments, executive orders and more.”

Alicia Garza is the author of “The Purpose of Power.

George Will recommends

‘The Living Presidency,’ by Saikrishna Bangalore Prakash

“Prakash, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, argues that the public would be less susceptible to extravagant expectations, and presidents would be more successful because they would be less vulnerable to the public’s disappointments, if a president would reverse the ‘creeping constitutional coup’ that has subverted the idea of ‘an executive subject to the Constitution and the law.’ Joe Biden, with 50 percent more congressional experience (36 Senate years) than any previous president, could benefit from restoring the Constitution’s Madisonian equilibrium by not wielding all the discretionary powers that Congress has improvidently given to the executive.”

George Will is the author of, most recently, “The Conservative Sensibility.”

Laila Lalami recommends

‘Supreme Inequality,’ by Adam Cohen

“Whatever else happens during the Biden presidency, the Supreme Court will play a huge role in affirming or striking down voting rights, reproductive rights, immigration, birthright citizenship, marriage equality or environmental protections. In this book, Adam Cohen shows how Richard Nixon’s appointments of four justices to the Court set it on a dangerous rightward course that has consistently undermined the rights of the poor and the disadvantaged while protecting corporations. Cohen’s lucid work provides important context for why the president-elect, and his party, need to make the Court a central concern of their agenda.”

Laila Lalami is the author of, most recently, “Conditional Citizens.”

Thomas Piketty recommends

‘Gold and Freedom,’ by Nicolas Barreyre

“This is a fascinating book about the multidimensionality of politics in the Reconstruction period. It is by navigating through these different dimensions that the Democratic Party managed to find its way from Civil War to New Deal and beyond. Today one of the big issues is whether the Democratic Party can regain the confidence of socially disadvantaged voters, independently from their origins. The country has changed a lot since Reconstruction, but there are still lessons to be learned from this period.”

Thomas Piketty is the author of, most recently, “Capital and Ideology.”

Harriet A. Washington recommends

‘To Repair the World,’ by Paul Farmer

“Amid raging cultural intolerance and a fatally mismanaged pandemic, Americans, especially people of color, sicken and die as they are pressed into service as ‘essential workers’ living in environmental sacrifice zones. The pandemic’s attendant rise in incivility and xenophobia has catalyzed open racial strife and slapped immigrant children into cages. What daunting challenge doesn’t Joe Biden face, and who can best advise the man who must lead us in repairing this broken nation?

“Perhaps the anthropologist, physician and politically savvy human-rights leader who has long and successfully jousted with the specter of medical indifference, governmental mendacity and indifference to the fate of marginalized ‘others’: Paul Farmer’s anthology of speeches offers shorter narratives suited to a busy leader that exude a moral philosophy, blueprint, case histories and deep inspiration for the change of heart that must fuel American atonement and national healing.”

Harriet A. Washington is the author, most recently, of “A Terrible Thing to Waste.”

David Frum recommends

‘The Deluge,’ by Adam Tooze

“Candidate Biden talked dangerously enthusiastically about ‘buy American.’ I hope the president-elect will recognize the huge benefits of global free trade — and the terrible dangers to prosperity and peace of ‘America First.’ So many books argue this case so well, but one that made an especially vivid impression on me was Adam Tooze’s: a sophisticated and terrifying history of how the failure to restore a liberal economic order after the catastrophe of World War I pushed the U.S. and the world to global depression and World War II.”

David Frum is the author of, most recently, “Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy.

Yascha Mounk recommends

‘The Subjection of Women,’ by John Stuart Mill

“What gives this moving plea for equal rights lasting relevance is that John Stuart Mill did not just describe injustices born by women; he argued that men, too, suffer from them because they will never get to enjoy the pleasures that come from a marriage of equals. As Joe Biden sets out to combat a different set of injustices, Mill can help point his way toward a vision that shows how much we all stand to gain from a more just society — especially if we emphasize how that future will allow us to focus on the affections and aspirations we share, not the petty interests and narrow identities that divide us.”

Yascha Mounk is the author of, most recently, “The People vs. Democracy.”

Elizabeth Kolbert recommends

‘The Future of Life,’ by Edward O. Wilson

“The actions of the new administration will affect people around the world and also the untold millions of other species with whom we share this planet. Wilson explains what’s at stake as biodiversity crashes and what needs to be done to stem the losses.”

Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of, most recently, “The Sixth Extinction.”

Michael Beschloss recommends

‘Washington,’ by Ron Chernow

“This classic shows how, when our democracy was fragile, a human and courageous leader — through his acts, language and personal example — defined the office of the presidency in order to protect our liberties, defend the country from secret foreign threats, ensure the rule of law, bring our people together and inspire our next generation.”

Michael Beschloss is the author of, most recently, “Presidents of War.”

Katherine Mangu-Ward recommends

‘Coolidge,’ by Amity Shlaes

“Calvin Coolidge is rarely counted among the rock-star presidents, but he was soothingly bland after a corrupt and divisive period in American political history. The famously laconic politician managed to leave Washington in better shape than he found it, including the rare feat of reducing the size of the federal budget. Silent Cal reportedly napped every afternoon of his presidency, a habit that might make our 46th president — and all of us — happier, saner and more effective.”

Katherine Mangu-Ward is the editor in chief of Reason magazine.

Annette Gordon-Reed recommends

‘Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880,’ by W.E.B. Du Bois

“The book recounts the efforts to remake American society in the wake of the Civil War operating on the premise that African Americans are equal citizens of the United States. Du Bois wrote to counteract historians and others who had portrayed the effort as doomed by Black inferiority. He demonstrates that the successes of interracial government were deliberately sabotaged by white supremacists who preferred to maintain a racial hierarchy rather than move into a future grounded in equal citizenship among all Americans.”

Annette Gordon-Reed is the author of, most recently, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs.”

Richard Haass recommends

‘Present at the Creation,’ by Dean Acheson

“The most innovative and successful period of modern American foreign policy came immediately after World War II, something captured by the title of the memoir written by Dean Acheson, President Harry Truman’s fourth and last secretary of state. There has been no comparable burst of creative statecraft since the Cold War ended three decades ago, and President Trump did much to weaken the institutions and relationships that have underpinned U.S. foreign policy for three-quarters of a century. President Biden will inherit a world of disarray; once he has completed the most urgent repairs, the challenge will be to design and build new arrangements that will structure rivalry with China and narrow the gap between the global challenges that will largely define this era and the world’s willingness and ability to respond to them.”

Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of, most recently, “The World: A Brief Introduction.”

Min Jin Lee recommends

‘Evicted,’ by Matthew Desmond

“Every ordinary American family has a budget, and our greatest expense is housing. So, how do those among us, who have the least, rest their heads at night without the fear of eviction? What does eviction do to our minds, hearts and our credit history? Desmond’s thorough investigation of the housing crisis in America is both horrifying and compassionate, and it is my hope that President-elect Biden will read this beautiful and important book to know better the lives of ordinary Americans.”

Min Jin Lee is the author of, most recently, “Pachinko.”

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. recommends

‘Baldwin,’ edited by Toni Morrison

“Given the moral reckoning we face in this country I would urge President Biden to spend some time with the nonfiction writings of James Baldwin. The book offers a cleareyed view of what rests at the heart of our national malaise, and he writes about it — bear witness to its effects — without a hint of sentimentality.”

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the author of, most recently, “Begin Again.”

Kay Hymowitz recommends

‘Men Without Work,’ by Nicholas Eberstadt

“Eberstadt brings attention to a largely neglected American crisis: the Depression-era levels of working-aged men, most but not all of them with a high school education or less, who have dropped out of the labor market. These ‘detached men’ are key to addressing some of the nation’s most acute socio-economic problems including family breakdown, intergenerational poverty, inequality and ‘deaths of despair.’”

Kay Hymowitz is the author of, most recently, “The New Brooklyn.”

Ayad Akhtar recommends

‘The True and Only Heaven,’ by Christopher Lasch

“The last time an American president admitted to reading a book by Christopher Lasch, it led to him losing an election (Jimmy Carter, ‘The Culture of Narcissism’). Which is just to say: If President-elect Biden takes up my suggestion, it might be best if he kept it to himself.

“Lasch’s final full-length work is his masterpiece, which, though written almost 30 years ago, foresaw much of the trouble in which we find ourselves today. Inspired, as he puts it, to counter the ‘acquisitive individualism fostered by liberalism’ as well as to revive a ‘sense of civic obligation,’ ‘The True and Only Heaven’ is that rare work of history that offers not only analysis and understanding, but wisdom, and even hope.”

Ayad Akhtar is the author, most recently, of “Homeland Elegies.”

Angus Deaton recommends

‘The Fifth Risk,’ by Michael Lewis

“President Biden is going to be very busy, and Lewis’s book is short and lively. Yet it deals with a vital and underappreciated issue, just how much we all depend on a well-functioning government. On how demonizing government has led to private plunder and destruction of our most important common asset, a storehouse of knowledge, science and dedication. Without it, we can neither prosper nor be safe.”

Angus Deaton is the author, with Anne Case, of “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.

Van Jones recommends

‘The People vs. Democracy,’ by Yascha Mounk

“Yascha Mounk does a great job laying out the challenges our country is facing and how to confront the authoritarian right.”

Van Jones is the author of, most recently, “Beyond the Messy Truth.”

Ai-Jen Poo recommends

‘The Purpose of Power,’ by Alicia Garza

“Social movements of everyday people have created the context for some of the most important acts of leadership from American presidents — from the labor movement of the 1930s and F.D.R., to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and L.B.J. — acts of leadership that have allowed us to make generational progress out of some of our greatest times of crisis and reckoning. ‘The Purpose of Power,’ written by one of this era’s most important movement-builders, offers essential insight into the power and possibility of movements today, to inspire presidential action that meets our current moment of crisis and opportunity for progress.”

Ai-Jen Poo is the author, with Ariane Conrad, of “The Age of Dignity.”

Yuval Levin recommends

‘American Politics,’ by Samuel P. Huntington

“There are many great books the president-elect might consult about the tensions now roiling American life, but since prophecy often runs deeper than analysis, he should read Samuel Huntington’s underappreciated 1981 masterpiece. Huntington describes an ineradicable tension between America’s ideals and the actual practice of our politics, and traces four great explosions of ‘creedal passion’ in our history that have been driven by moral outrage rooted in frustration with that tension — in the revolutionary era, Jacksonian America, the Progressive era, and the late 1960s. He predicts another such wave, mixing populism and a resurgent progressive moralism, right around 2020, and offers insights about our own moment that could help Biden grasp the potential for renewal, but also the enormous danger of the illiberal radicalism overtaking his own party.”

Yuval Levin is the author of, most recently, “A Time to Build.”

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio recommends

‘What It’s Like to Be a Bird,’ by David Allen Sibley

“I focus on a few birds every night before I go to bed. Look at the birds that are hated, forcibly sterilized, shot with rifles because they are big and dark and scavenge to survive. Learn what makes them beautiful and ask why God created them. You represent them, too, not just the garden songbirds.”

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is the author of “The Undocumented Americans.”

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