Harry S. Truman, historian David McCullough has observed, was also a great reader, absorbing volumes of history that convinced him of the power of strong individual leadership in shaping human destiny. Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the modern presidency’s biggest bibliophile, read anywhere and everywhere. Combing the volumes of bird artist John James Audubon no doubt helped deepen TR’s appreciation of wilderness areas, inspiring his role as a champion of national parks.
Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare sharpened his eloquence as a public speaker, helping to shape the rhetorical brilliance he used to save the Union. Shakespeare also cultivated Lincoln’s keen eye for human foibles, a valuable asset for any leader.
Thomas Jefferson’s wide reading nourished the intellect behind the Declaration of Independence. “I cannot live without books,” he wrote to another former president and equally avid reader, John Adams, late in life.
Adams, writes Mr. McCullough, “read Cicero, Tacitus, and others of his Roman heroes in Latin, and Plato and Thucydides in the original Greek, which he considered the supreme language. But in his need to fathom the ‘labyrinth’ of human nature, as he said, he was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume and English poetry with him on his journeys.”
Such engagement with the written word by some of America’s most accomplished chief executives suggests that for many of the most successful presidents, reading has been not merely a hobby, but an essential resource in building their world views.