The Libraries of Great Men: Theodore Roosevelt’s Reading List

by Jeremy Anderberg on February 3, 2014 · 31 comments

in Books, Libraries of Famous Men, Travel & Leisure

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Many men are quick to buy the newest book from their favorite business leader or sports hero. From the late Stephen Covey (a personal favorite of Brett and mine) to former NFL coach Tony Dungy, there are a seemingly infinite variety of modern books on philosophy and leadership from which we can glean advice. And of course this treasury of self-help tomes extends back far into the past, and books written by men like Teddy Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, and Dale Carnegie can be well worth dusting off and cracking open — especially when you’re looking to assemble a cabinet of invisible counselors. Reading books by your “mentors” — even if they’re long gone from this world — is a great way to learn and grow as a man.

What if I told you, though, that there was an even better way? Those men that you revere were quite likely readers themselves. There were books that they devoured and studied over and over that influenced who they were and how they came to see the world. Their own philosophy represents a distillation of all the great works they fed into their minds, so why not trace the stream of their thinking back to the source? Or, as David Leach, a now retired business executive put it: “Don’t follow your mentors; follow your mentors’ mentors.” Taking in the wisdom of who your mentors admired will get you closer to being of the same mind than simply reading their own memoirs and journals.

With this article we’re embarking on a series to help you do just that. Every few months or so, we’ll find a man in history who many admire and read about, find what and who he read, and post it here. Beyond being just a fascinating look inside a man’s life, you can use these lists to direct your own reading and expand your mind and character.

The Reading Habits of Theodore Roosevelt

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“Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls ‘the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.” ~TR

Who better to start with than our revered Theodore Roosevelt? We’ve covered his tenacity, his physical strength, his childhood, his integrity – heck, we even have a poster of one of his most famous quotes in the AoM store. He was an influential man to be sure, but who influenced Mr. Roosevelt? What did he read in his spare time? What did he pick up from his library over and over again? I recently stumbled across a letter he wrote to a friend who had asked for book recommendations. Not able to restrain himself, Roosevelt listed over 100 works – and those were only the ones he could remember reading from the previous two years!

“A book must be interesting to the particular reader at that particular time.” ~TR

TR was quite famously a rabid reader. He would read a book before breakfast, and another two or three in the evening. It’s estimated he read tens of thousands of books in his lifetime, many of them in other languages. (If you’re asking how this is possible, he was also famously a speed reader. Lucky for you, we’ve written about how to speed read like TR.)

Another key to the vast number of books Roosevelt was able to devour in his lifetime was his remarkable power of concentration. As one biographer wrote, “his occupation for the moment was to the exclusion of everything else; if he were reading, the house might fall about his head, he could not be diverted.” When riding a train on presidential business, he’d sit completely absorbed in his books, disengage to have brief conversations with the delegations that came through his car, and then immediately lose himself once more in the pages before him. Whenever he was reading, he gave off the impression to observers that he was in a completely other world, “as if alone by a camp fire in some deep forest.”

“Now and then I am asked as to ‘what books a statesman should read,’ and my answer is, poetry and novels – including short stories under the head of novels. I don’t mean that he should read only novels and modern poetry. If he cannot also enjoy the Hebrew prophets and the Greek dramatists, he should be sorry. He ought to read interesting books on history and government, and books of science and philosophy; and really good books on these subjects are as enthralling as any fiction ever written.”

While Roosevelt was renowned for his ability to direct his full attention to a book, he was not at all opposed to the idea of skimming when necessary. He would jump around to try to get the meaty nuggets of text that would inspire him or force him to think critically about something. Regarding Dickens, he wrote, “The wise thing to do is simply to skip the bosh and twaddle and vulgarity and untruth, and get the benefit out of the rest.” When reading Greek history, he might take in a chapter or two before setting it back down for a few months. He didn’t live by any hard and fast rules of reading in which he had to finish everything he picked up. He did what worked for him, and ended up being one of the most well read men in all of history.

Below you’ll find the list that TR sent to his friend in its entirety. Peruse it, use it for your own reading life, and enjoy. You’ll find everything from Greek history and tragedy, to the dramas of Shakespeare, to modern popular novels, and treatises on the outdoors. He noted in his letter that he had read over half of these titles multiple times – an incredible feat in its own right.

While you can use this as your next reading list, I would not recommend being too fastidious about it. If you don’t enjoy a book on the list or don’t find it interesting, then don’t continue reading. Mr. Roosevelt was clear that each man enjoys different things, and those are the things he should pursue (but especially fiction and poetry!).

Note: They are in the order that Roosevelt listed them in his letter. 

Theodore Roosevelt’s Reading List

Title Author
The History of the Peloponnesian War Thucydides
The Histories Herodotus
The Histories Polybius
Plutarch’s Lives Plutarch
Oresteia Trilogy Aeschylus
Seven Against Thebes Aeschylus
Hippolytus Euripides
The Bacchae Euripides
Frogs Aristophones
Politics Aristotle
Early Age of Greece William Ridgeway
Alexander the Great Benjamin Ide Wheeler
History of Egypt, Chaldæa, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria Gaston Maspero
Chronicles Froissart
The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot Baron de Marbot
Charles XII and the Collapse of the Swedish Empire Robert Nisbet Bain
Types of Naval Officers AT Mahan
Critical and Historical Essays Thomas Macaulay
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon
The Life of Prince Eugene Prince Eugene of Savoy
Life of Lieut.-Admiral De Ruyter G Grinnell-Milne
Life of Sobieski John Sobieski
Frederick the Great Thomas Carlyle
Abraham Lincoln: A History Hay and Nicolay
Speeches and Writings Abraham Lincoln
The Essays Francis Bacon
Macbeth Shakespeare
Twelfth Night Shakespeare
Henry IV Shakespeare
Henry the Fifth Shakespeare
Richard II Shakespeare
Paradise Lost John Milton
Poems Michael Drayton
Nibelungenlied Anonymous
Inferno Dante (prose translastion by Carlyle)
Beowulf (Samuel H. Church translation)
Heimskringla: Lives of the Norse Kings Snorri Sturluson
The Story of Burnt Njal (George Dasent translation)
Gisli the Outlaw (George Dasent translation)
Cuchulain of Muirthemne (Lady Gregory translation)
The Affected Young Ladies Moliere
The Barber of Seville Gioachino Rossini
The Kingis Quair James I of Scotland
Over the Teacups Oliver Wendell Holmes
Shakespeare and Voltaire Thomas Lounsbury
Sevastopol Sketches Leo Tolstoy
The Cossacks Leo Tolstoy
With Fire and Sword Henryk Sienkiewicz
Guy Mannering Sir Walter Scott
The Antiquary Sir Walter Scott
Rob Roy Sir Walter Scott
Waverly Sir Walter Scott
Quentin Durward Sir Walter Scott
Marmion Sir Walter Scott
The Lay of the Last Minstrel Sir Walter Scott
The Pilot James Fenimore Cooper
Tom Sawyer Mark Twain
The Pickwick Papers Charles Dickens
Nicholas Nickleby Charles Dickens
Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray
The History of Pendennis William Makepeace Thackeray
The Newcomes William Makepeace Thackeray
The Adventures of Philip William Makepeace Thackeray
The White Company Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Charles O’Malley Charles Lever
Poems John Keats
Poems Robert Browning
Poems Edgar Allan Poe
Poems Lord Alfred Tennyson
Poems Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Poems Rudyard Kipling
Poems Bliss Carman
Tales Edgard Allan Poe
Essays James Russell Lowell
Complete Stories Robert Louis Stevenson
British Ballads William Allingham
The Simple Life Charles Wagner
The Rose and the Ring William Makepeace Thackeray
Fairy Tales Hans Andersen
Grimm’s Fairy Tales Grimm Bros
The Story of King Arthur Howard Pyle
Complete Tales of Uncle Remus Joel Chandler Harris
The Woman Who Toils Bessie Van Vorst
The Golden Age Kenneth Grahame
All on the Irish Shore Somerville & Ross
Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. Somerville & Ross
Asia and Europe Meredith Townsend
Youth: A Narrative Joseph Conrad
Works Artemus Ward
Stories of a Western Town Octave Thanet
My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War Ben Viljoen
Through the Subarctic Forest Warburton Pike
Cross Country with Horse and Hound Frank Sherman Peer
Ways of Nature John Burroughs
The Real Malay Frank Swettenham
Gallops David Gray
Napoleon Jackson Ruth Stuart
The Passing of Thomas Thomas Janvier
The Benefactress Elizabeth von Arnim
People of the Whirlpool Mabel Osgood Wright
Call of the Wild Jack London
The Little Sheperd of Kingdom Come John Fox
The Captain of the Gray-Horse Troop Hamlin Garland
The Gentleman from Indiana Booth Tarkington
The Crisis Winston Churchill
John Ermine of the Yellowstone Frederic Remington
The Virginian Owen Wister
Red Men and White Owen Wister
Philosophy 4 Owen Wister
Lin McLean Owen Wister
The Blazed Trail Stewart Edward White
Conjuror’s House Stewart Edward White
The Claim Jumpers Stewart Edward White
American Revolution George Otto Trevelyan

 

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joseph February 3, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Great article! I’m looking forward to the future installations in the series!

2 Aaron M. Renn February 3, 2014 at 5:24 pm

The Barber of Seville is an opera by Rossini. I can’t imagine him wanting to read the libretto. Is this an opera he enjoyed listening to, or was it really the play by Beaumarchais?

3 Travis February 3, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Curious as to whether TR would have read as many books if he lived during our time of technological gadgets and entertainment?

4 Mike M. February 3, 2014 at 8:16 pm

It might have affected how he consumed the material. There are some excellent filmed versions of Shakespeare’s plays.

5 the pensive cartographer February 3, 2014 at 9:06 pm

thanks for another stimulating & informative post. I’m an inveterate list maker, and reading lists above all — this is one to hang on to. TR carried trunks full of books when he traveled down the River of Doubt in 1913-14. A rare thing in this world — a complete man (action as well as abstraction).

6 James Strock February 3, 2014 at 9:12 pm

Terrific article, Jeremy!

Travis–one suspects he would, if anything, have read even more books today. TR often read a book a day. He read voraciously, driven to make use of even the smallest amounts of ‘free’ time. For example, as president he might stash books in columns to have at the ready. His young son Quentin told other children that his father, the president, had read every book in the Library of Congress. Pardonable hyperbole. That is…. I think it’s hyperbole… :-)

7 Pat S. February 3, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Apparently T.R. would read magazines and as he finished a page he would rip it out and toss it to the floor, odd habit.

8 Nate February 3, 2014 at 9:18 pm

The book about Teddy, by Teddy should also be read.

9 Joseph February 3, 2014 at 9:18 pm

That’s a pretty small library, actually. Although, there are some books listed that I will be looking into.

10 Robert Kirk February 3, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Though I’m speculating. I have little doubt The Columbian Orator was one.

11 Johnny February 3, 2014 at 10:08 pm

Very very excited about this new series!

12 Ben February 4, 2014 at 3:09 am

A really wonderful thing is that, if you have some kind of tablet or e-reader, or are willing to read from your computer, all of these books can be had for free. I like to think this is an achievement which Mr Roosevelt would hold in high acclaim indeed.

13 Joe February 4, 2014 at 8:48 am

I just finished reading African Game Trails by TR on the plane yesterday and he provided in the appedicies a list of all of the books that he carried with him and read during that year long safari.

14 Bill February 4, 2014 at 9:02 am

I think he would have been happy with the new Heaney translation of Beowulf rather than the older, slightly academic Church version listed here.

15 Nikola Gjakovski February 4, 2014 at 9:04 am

I consider myself more spiritually aimed type of a guy, but reading one of these wont hurt. .Osho is my favorite and I would prefer him if someone is implicated with “well-being”

16 John February 4, 2014 at 10:29 am

Interesting. I would have thought he’d have included Sherlock Holmes in his list for it’s intellectual analysis of situations.

17 Ethan Glover February 4, 2014 at 12:37 pm

I like the idea of these posts, I look forward to see who else you come up with.

18 Ty February 4, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Many of these titles are available for free on Amazon Kindle – no excuse for being literary inept!

19 Waitsel Smith February 4, 2014 at 4:49 pm

Before tackling the Greek and Roman writers, keep in mind that Roosevelt, like his contemporaries, had a CLASSICAL education, which means he studied Latin and Greek. Those writers can be awfully dry, so I would not recommend them except in small doses. Also, he left off the very best of Dickens, almost all of Twain, most of the best of Shakespeare, almost all of Poe, almost all of Stephenson, all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, etc. I would have to say that this is a very incomplete list if you want to be well-rounded. There are better lists out there, although I do appreciate the effort. Since the time of Roosevelt, there have been some other great writers, especially of science fiction, which I would expect him to appreciate. He did well to give the caveat not to judge another man’s reading list, because his could certainly be said to be wanting.

20 Brad Brescia February 4, 2014 at 5:05 pm

A quote from another president (one who was said to have read every book in the library of congress) comes to mind… “The only thing new is the history you haven’t yet read.” – Harry S. Truman

It is amazing to look through history and see the depth of leadership and character embodied by those who were well read – those that would exemplify the modern “liberal arts” education. Makes one reconsider the way society seems to be encouraging a “utilitarian” style of education…

21 Ryan P. Owens February 4, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Good afternoon,

Thank you for the wonderful article. It would be lovely if you put together a document of TR’s reading list that was downloadable and created to be printed.

22 Kirk February 4, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Its a bit sad how so many of these are unavailable anymore (or at a rediculous price). It would have been even worse 15 years ago at least a number of these are on kindle (some are free -AOM should link to those that are)
Frederick the Great must have taken a whole shelf with its 20 volumes.

23 John O. February 4, 2014 at 10:11 pm

How about Frederick Douglass? Personally I would love to see what shaped the inside of his skull.

None the less, Roosevelt’s list is more than a fair share of fine artistry, which I am thankful for.

24 James February 5, 2014 at 9:24 am

All that by Walter Scott yet no Ivanhoe.

25 Greg G February 5, 2014 at 7:20 pm

John O.

In his first autobiography, Douglass mentions reading _The Columbian Orator_ and the speeches of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. I only know this because I deeply admire Douglass.

Interesting list. He definitely had some idiosyncratic tastes in Shakespeare. And what’s with so much Sir Walter Scott?

26 Kyle Boureston February 5, 2014 at 9:05 pm

This is awesome – thanks Jeremy!

27 David February 6, 2014 at 12:00 am

Been reading up on TR. Folks that knew him backed up his gargantuan reading habits telling that TR would explain the detailed contents of his latest read. Also. Look up the amazing story of how he read Anna Karenina. And. He read all the Sci-Fi. If he were with us today, I’m sure he would bought the first Kindle.

28 Barnabas February 6, 2014 at 10:02 pm

This was a great article. TR was certainly a great example in practically every other aspect of his life, so this is a fantastic list.

I’m looking forward to more of the same, and I certainly hope you’ll write one up on Hemingway.

29 John February 6, 2014 at 11:07 pm

Many of the books T. Roosevelt wrote are available as free kindle downloads on amazon

30 Dave February 10, 2014 at 5:48 am

Everyone seems to be forgetting that this is not a list of the books he read. It is a list he gave to a friend asking for a book recommendation. How many people would list a list this long to a freind asking for a good book to read. I sure if he read 3-4 books a day there are a few he left off for one reason or another, this does not mean he did not read or like them.

Dave

31 Shane February 10, 2014 at 10:17 am

Great comments everyone. However, it’s clear that several didn’t read the article as there are several comments about this being an incomplete list. Remember that this is simply a list of books that TR recommeded from a list of books that he read in the previous 2 years, not a complete list of the best books to read or complete a library. That said, I love the list.

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