Books

Barack Obama’s favourite books of 2019 are here to prove that sexist “chick lit” theory wrong

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Christobel Hastings
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Barack Obama is continuing his holiday tradition of sharing his favourite books of the year. And on his reading list of his top books from 2019, he gave a show of support for many female authors, including Sally Rooney, the Irish phenomenon behind the critically lauded novel Normal People

If 2019 could be summed up in one conversation starter, it might well be the following: “Have you read Normal People?” 

Whether you’re a fan or a critic of Sally Rooney, the 28-year-old bestselling Irish author, you’ll no doubt understand the reference, given the huge popularity of her two acclaimed, prize-nominated novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People. These days, in fact, Rooney’s books are so ubiquitous that the mere mention of her name usually elicits either a coo of admiration or a bored eyeroll. For as much as Rooney has been attracted euphoric praise for defining the voice of a generation, she too has attracted her share of fierce, and frequently sexist, criticism. 

Whatever your opinion of Rooney’s fiction, there is no escaping the fact that the author has attracted disproportionately gendered criticism for her writing. She has been pigeonholed as a “millennial novelist” for the aspirational, Instagram generation. The Booklist commented that Conversations with Friends is “a smart, sexy, realistic portrayal of a woman finding herself”. At the beginning of this year, on Radio 4’s Front Row, Jeremy Bowen dismissed Normal People as “chick lit”, while Will Self branded Normal People as “very simple stuff with no literary ambition.” Many discussions about the calibre of work inevitably end up suggesting that her commercial success disqualifies her as a literary talent, as if it is impossible to be both.

So too has she been on the receiving end of intrusively personal comments about her looks. Critics have been known to ask her about her sex life and her politics. Then there was the infamous comment from Swiss critic Martin Ebel, who remarked that Rooney “looks like a startled deer with sensuous lips”, which in turn sparked its own hashtag, #dichterdran, with people tweeting suggestions of how male authors could be written about, using descriptors commonly reserved for women.

Now, Barack Obama has joined the conversation, positioning himself firmly in the camp of people who adore Normal People.

Normal People
Sally Rooney's Normal People was one of the best-selling books during the first stage of lockdown.

The former President gave Sally Rooney the seal of approval when he continued his annual holiday tradition of sharing his favourite books from the year that was. 

“This has become a fun little tradition for me, and I hope it is for you, too,” Obama wrote in an Instagram post announcing his best books from 2019. “Because while each of us has plenty that keeps us busy – work and family life, social and volunteer commitments – outlets like literature and art can enhance our day-to-day experiences.”

“They’re the fabric that helps make up a life - the album that lifts us up after a long day, the dog-eared paperback we grab off the shelf to give to a friend, the movie that makes us think and feel in a new way, works that simply help us escape for a bit. 

“To start, here are the books that made the last year a little brighter for me. Most of them came out in 2019, but a few were older ones that were new to me this year. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.”

Normal People
Normal People: Daisy Edgar-Jones (right) stars as Marianne, aka the cornerstone of Sally Rooney’s tale

Refreshingly, Obama lent his support to a host of both up-and-coming and celebrated female authors, such as Bernardine Evaristo, whose bestselling novel, Girl, Woman, Other, which jointly won the Booker Prize in 2019. Obama also included books about contemporary culture, such as Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. 

An endorsement from the 44th president? That’s one way to silence your critics.

Check out the full list of Obama’s favourite books below:

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington

Normal People by Sally Rooney

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

Solitary by Albert Woodfox

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

We Live in Water: Stories by Jess Walter

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Images: Getty, BBC