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Ask a Book Question: The 33nd in a Series (Presidential Reading)


Harry writes in with this question about Kennedy’s reading habits.I have read that one of JFK’s favorite books was about the social mores of the English Royalty and their attitudes toward the commoners. Would you be able tell me anything about that?Americans like to get to know their presidents. We hear about their stature (Lincoln tall, Madison short), their culinary preferences (Reagan liked jellybeans, Bush the first hated broccoli), and their reading habits. In 2003 Bill Clinton gave reporters this list of his favorite books. Reagan was reported to have liked That Printer of Udell’s by Harold Bell Wright and Witness by Whittaker Chambers. Growing up, Ford loved Horatio Alger. JFK was known to have a predilection for books, and many of his biographers have reported that his favorite book was Pilgrim’s Way the autobiography of John Buchan, which I think might be the book you were looking for. The book wasn’t about British royalty, though, so I’m not sure it’s the book you were referring to. It was about the British aristocracy. Buchan was a Scottish spy novelist, one of the early ones, penning thrillers during the WWI era. But Pilgrim’s Way was a more personal departure from his typical work. Thomas Maier’s The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings includes this passage: “While Kathleen Kennedy partied and enjoyed the company of young British squires, her brother John devoured lessons about the aristocracy from his English friends and from such books as Pilgrim’s Way.” Apparently, Kennedy was a big fan of Buchan’s books and he quoted them often in speeches. For more on Buchan have a look at this essay from New Criterion and there’s the John Buchan Society. While most sources say that Pilgrim’s Way was JFK’s favorite book, this list at Amazon, which is supposedly drawn from a 1961 issue of Life, puts another Buchan book, Montrose as his favorite. Still, I’m not convinced that I found the book that Harry was looking for, so if anyone has a better answer to this question, please let us know.

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