The Best-Read Presidents

In honor of Presidents' Day, The Daily Beast ranks the top 19 presidents who were the most avid readers and book collectors, from James Buchanan to Theodore Roosevelt. Plus, find out what books they read.

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19. James Buchanan

C-SPAN: 42

Considered the worst president in our history, James Buchanan not only loved reading, but also being read to. He was in the habit of reading himself to sleep every night with a candlestick and candle, terrified of burning a hole in his books, according to George Ticknor Curtis’s biography. And, frequently, he did. A dazzling conversationalist, he could even quote many passages from the classics verbatim, memorized since his college days. Buchanan read all sorts of literature, though his favorite material was the New Testament and books about its teachings. In his final years, however, he announced that he was “tired of reading,” according to Curtis.

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18. Richard Nixon

C-SPAN: 27

“As you know, I kind of like to read books. I am not educated, but I do read books.” In his farewell speech as president, Richard Nixon took the time to make this defensive but true remark. While no intellectual, as he was fond of pointing out, Nixon was an avid reader, who, according to Conrad Black, would often retreat to a secret room in the Old Executive Office to read and nap. His favorite authors were Tolstoy and the conservative historian Paul Johnson.

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17. James Garfield

C-SPAN: 28

James Garfield was raised in poverty with few books. So when he arrived at Williams the summer before his first semester, having never read Shakespeare, Dickens, or Thackeray, he set out to make up for lost time. He devoured poetry, history, metaphysics, and science. Through his time in the military, he kept several volumes of classics with him at all time. And later in life, he would choose a topic and immerse himself in it completely—he went through a phase of deep fascination with Goethe, for instance. Garfield also kept some of the most meticulous records of any president, keeping an entire library out of scrapbooks beginning from the time he entered public life.

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16. Bill Clinton

C-SPAN: 15

Famous for his late-night policy seminars and ability to multitask, Bill Clinton makes the list of best-read presidents. As famous for racing through the latest thriller as making Robert Wright’s Nonzero required reading in the West Wing, Clinton embraced novelists and historians throughout his presidency. In 2003, Clinton presented a list of his 21 favorite books, which included Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and, no surprise, Living History by Hilary Rodham Clinton.

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15. Jimmy Carter


C-SPAN: 25

The only president on the record for having attended a speed-reading class (with his daughter Amy), Carter was able to compete for sheer volume with Theodore Roosevelt. No surprise that one of this liberal farmer’s favorites is James Agee and Walker Evans’ searing account of the Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Since 1975, Carter has also written 24 books, from his campaign memoir to most recently a peace plan for Israel-Palestine, which puts him at the head of the pack of presidential authors.

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14. John F. Kennedy

C-SPAN: 6

Known forever for his youthful looks and racy behavior, Kennedy might seem a surprising inclusion in this list, but he is one of the few presidents to have a bona fide bestseller, Profiles in Courage, before he even served. Any man that asked Robert Frost to read at his inauguration and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to join his Cabinet must have a passion for literature, and Kennedy was an impressive and wide-ranging reader, with an Anglophile bent in his taste for John Buchan’s thrillers, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Churchill’s biography of Marlborough.

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13. Herbert Hoover

C-SPAN: 34

Hoover may have been too busy reading to notice the Great Depression. His formal training was in mining engineering and his personal library reflected that. From the early 1900s, he collected rare books in the fields of mining, mathematics, astronomy, and alchemy from his travels and built a 1,000-volume library—mostly in Latin—devoted to the sciences. Hoover, also a prolific writer, even published the first English translation of Georgius Agricola’s 1556 text on metallurgy, De Re Metallica.

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12. Millard Fillmore

C-SPAN: 37

Fillmore’s inclusion just goes to show that a well-read president isn’t necessarily a good one. When he took office in 1850, there was not so much as a Bible in the White House. He and his wife, Abigail Powers Fillmore, who was a former schoolteacher and voracious reader, set about changing that. She turned a large room on the second floor into a library and filled it with books, thanks to an appropriation act that authorized the spending of $250. By the time he died, Fillmore’s personal collection had expanded to 4,000 volumes.

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11. James Madison

C-SPAN: 20

Though he was steeped in classical thought, read Latin, Greek, and French, James Madison had a penchant for what was known as the “polite” popular literature of his time. He read endlessly from the time he arrived at Princeton, where his professors’ libraries became his own as he completed the four-year course in just two. He went on to collect some 4,000 books, along with stacks of pamphlets that stood on every surface in his library at Montpelier, his stately home in Orange, Virginia, according to Ralph Louis Ketcham’s biography. Madison certainly appreciated the importance of books in his public life, too. In 1815, he approved an act of Congress appropriating $23,950 for Jefferson’s collection.

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10. James Monroe

C-SPAN: 14

James Monroe never completed his course at the College of William and Mary, instead following a patriotic impulse to fight alongside the American Revolutionaries. So he completed his education on his own by delving into philosophy, political thought, science, and law. As a collector, Monroe amassed over 3,000 volumes, which he painstakingly cataloged in a handwritten inventory. Many of his books still hold his nameplates, dating back to the time he acquired them.

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9. George Washington

C-SPAN: 2

What George Washington lacked in formal education, he more than made up for in his reading on the subjects of agriculture and military tactics. Those alone accounted for the vast majority of the volumes in the personal library of 900 books he amassed throughout his lifetime. "Essai Général de Tactique," a 1770 military treatise by the French general Comte de Guibert, seems to have been a particular favorite. Recent studies suggest, however, that some 18th-century literature might have found its way in there as well.

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8. John Adams

C-SPAN: 17

Not only was the second president a prolific writer—his letters to his erudite wife, Abigail, are still in print—but he was also a voracious reader. His personal library, which he later willed to the people of Massachussetts, included 3,510 books on everything from politics to mathematics. Adams also took great pride in book ownership, as is clear from his flamboyant signature he scratched on the flyleaf of most of the volumes in his collection. But the jewel in his collection was his 1734 copy of Cicero’s Orationum Selectarum Liber: Editus in Usum Scholarum, a seminal text on rhetoric—Adams autographed this one six times.

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7. Woodrow Wilson

C-SPAN: 9

Though Woodrow Wilson did not learn to read until the age of 10—perhaps because of undiagnosed dyslexia—he became a voracious reader on everything from sea stories to world history. Consuming texts in several languages about European models of government, he wrote at length about adopting certain elements from foreign systems in the American model. His readings on British government in particular—namely from people like Edmund Burke, William Pitt, and William Gladstone—seemed to be a leading cause for his difficult relationship with Congress. By the time he died, his personal library contained nearly 7,000 books. As a former professor and president of Princeton, it’s no surprise to find this bookish peacemaker near the top.

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6. John Quincy Adams

C-SPAN: 19

From the time he was 10 years old, John Quincy Adams began accompanying his father on his long diplomatic trips to Europe, immersing himself in all the literature and political thought 18th-century Europe had to offer. But it was at the age of 14, when he found himself in St. Petersburg as the personal secretary to statesman Francis Dana, that he began his habit of haunting bookstores and devouring books in the city’s English library. According to Robert Vincent Remini’s 2002 biography, Adams schooled himself in the works of Cicero, Hume, Voltaire, and Pope there, all in preparation for his admission to Harvard. By the end of his life, he had amassed over 7,000 books.

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5. Rutherford Hayes

C-SPAN: 33

Though his presidency was unremarkable, Rutherford B. Hayes’ library stands out even by the lofty standards set by other well-read presidents. By the end of his life, it contained some 12,000 volumes, including the works of his favorite author and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his Ohio home. Before he was president, Hayes had also adopted a local free library in Fremont, Ohio, as a pet project and supervised its development for over a decade.

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4. Abraham Lincoln

C-SPAN: 1

Few presidents are as famous for their elegant and profound writing and speeches as Lincoln and yet no other president had as little formal education as he did. But from an early age he read and reread The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan and Aesop’s Fables, before moving on to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. Lincoln read deeply in the classics but, according to David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, “fiction did not interest him.” While he had a small library compared to others, he was the deepest reader of the lot.

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3. Thomas Jefferson

C-SPAN: 7

When the British burned the 3,000-volume Library of Congress, the president with a self-described “canine appetite for reading” stepped in. He immediately offered Congress between 9,000 and 10,000 volumes from his personal collection as a replacement—Congress ultimately took the entire collection, which amounted to 6,487. Jefferson read so copiously, even in languages like French, Italian, and Spanish, that he once designed a rotating bookstand that allowed him to consult five books at a time. He also devoted the latter years of his life to collecting, building relationships with every bookseller in New York and Philadelphia, along with many more across the Atlantic. For the range of his reading, he comes in third.

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2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

C-SPAN: 3

“A second-class intellect but a first-class temperament,” Oliver Wendell Holmes is supposed to have remarked about FDR, who was nevertheless among the best-read presidents. One of the wealthiest men to serve as president, FDR had ample means with which to build a 22,000-volume personal library—and a collection of 25,000 stamps. His tastes ran toward history and biographies though he wasn’t above the occasional detective novel. By size of library alone, he comes in second place.

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1. Theodore Roosevelt

C-SPAN: 4

Like no other president, Theodore Roosevelt consumed books at an awe-inspiring rate of one a day when busy and two to three when he had a free evening, according to biographer Edmund Morris. He was an omnivorous reader, happy to consume any sort of book because it both satisfied his natural curiosity and afforded him a few moments of “complete rest and complete detachment from the fighting of the moment.” But few authors influenced his military career and presidency more than Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. His seminal military text, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, was largely responsible for shaping Roosevelt’s imperialistic thought. Naturalist writers, such as Audubon and Spencer Fullerton Baird, also spoke to his penchant for the natural sciences and made the preservation of America’s natural beauty one of his priorities.