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• Last updated: September 26, 2021

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

Vintage libraries of famous men.

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 is 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

Theodore teddy roosevelt reading in study in chair.

“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 another world, “as if alone by a campfire 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 it. 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

TitleAuthor
The History of the Peloponnesian WarThucydides
The HistoriesHerodotus
The HistoriesPolybius
Plutarch’s LivesPlutarch
Oresteia TrilogyAeschylus
Seven Against ThebesAeschylus
HippolytusEuripides
The BacchaeEuripides
FrogsAristophanes
PoliticsAristotle
Early Age of GreeceWilliam Ridgeway
Alexander the GreatBenjamin Ide Wheeler
History of Egypt, Chaldæa, Syria, Babylonia, and AssyriaGaston Maspero
ChroniclesFroissart
The Memoirs of Baron de MarbotBaron de Marbot
Charles XII and the Collapse of the Swedish EmpireRobert Nisbet Bain
Types of Naval OfficersAT Mahan
Critical and Historical EssaysThomas Macaulay
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman EmpireEdward Gibbon
The Life of Prince EugenePrince Eugene of Savoy
Life of Lieut.-Admiral De RuyterG Grinnell-Milne
Life of SobieskiJohn Sobieski
Frederick the GreatThomas Carlyle
Abraham Lincoln: A HistoryHay and Nicolay
Speeches and WritingsAbraham Lincoln
The EssaysFrancis Bacon
MacbethShakespeare
Twelfth NightShakespeare
Henry IVShakespeare
Henry the FifthShakespeare
Richard IIShakespeare
Paradise LostJohn Milton
PoemsMichael Drayton
NibelungenliedAnonymous
InfernoDante (prose translation by Carlyle)
Beowulf(Samuel H. Church translation)
Heimskringla: Lives of the Norse KingsSnorri Sturluson
The Story of Burnt Njal(George Dasent translation)
Gisli the Outlaw(George Dasent translation)
Cuchulain of Muirthemne(Lady Gregory translation)
The Affected Young LadiesMoliere
The Barber of SevilleGioachino Rossini
The Kingis QuairJames I of Scotland
Over the TeacupsOliver Wendell Holmes
Shakespeare and VoltaireThomas Lounsbury
Sevastopol SketchesLeo Tolstoy
The CossacksLeo Tolstoy
With Fire and SwordHenryk Sienkiewicz
Guy ManneringSir Walter Scott
The AntiquarySir Walter Scott
Rob RoySir Walter Scott
WaverlySir Walter Scott
Quentin DurwardSir Walter Scott
MarmionSir Walter Scott
The Lay of the Last MinstrelSir Walter Scott
The PilotJames Fenimore Cooper
Tom SawyerMark Twain
The Pickwick PapersCharles Dickens
Nicholas NicklebyCharles Dickens
Vanity FairWilliam Makepeace Thackeray
The History of PendennisWilliam Makepeace Thackeray
The NewcomesWilliam Makepeace Thackeray
The Adventures of PhilipWilliam Makepeace Thackeray
The White CompanySir Arthur Conan Doyle
Charles O’MalleyCharles Lever
PoemsJohn Keats
PoemsRobert Browning
PoemsEdgar Allan Poe
PoemsLord Alfred Tennyson
PoemsHenry Wadsworth Longfellow
PoemsRudyard Kipling
PoemsBliss Carman
TalesEdgard Allan Poe
EssaysJames Russell Lowell
Complete StoriesRobert Louis Stevenson
British BalladsWilliam Allingham
The Simple LifeCharles Wagner
The Rose and the RingWilliam Makepeace Thackeray
Fairy TalesHans Andersen
Grimm’s Fairy TalesGrimm Bros
The Story of King ArthurHoward Pyle
Complete Tales of Uncle RemusJoel Chandler Harris
The Woman Who ToilsBessie Van Vorst
The Golden AgeKenneth Grahame
All on the Irish ShoreSomerville & Ross
Some Experiences of an Irish R.M.Somerville & Ross
Asia and EuropeMeredith Townsend
Youth: A NarrativeJoseph Conrad
WorksArtemus Ward
Stories of a Western TownOctave Thanet
My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer WarBen Viljoen
Through the Subarctic ForestWarburton Pike
Cross Country with Horse and HoundFrank Sherman Peer
Ways of NatureJohn Burroughs
The Real MalayFrank Swettenham
GallopsDavid Gray
Napoleon JacksonRuth Stuart
The Passing of ThomasThomas Janvier
The BenefactressElizabeth von Arnim
People of the WhirlpoolMabel Osgood Wright
Call of the WildJack London
The Little Sheperd of Kingdom ComeJohn Fox
The Captain of the Gray-Horse TroopHamlin Garland
The Gentleman from IndianaBooth Tarkington
The CrisisWinston Churchill
John Ermine of the YellowstoneFrederic Remington
The VirginianOwen Wister
Red Men and WhiteOwen Wister
Philosophy 4Owen Wister
Lin McLeanOwen Wister
The Blazed TrailStewart Edward White
Conjuror’s HouseStewart Edward White
The Claim JumpersStewart Edward White
American RevolutionGeorge Otto Trevelyan

 

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