A love of books is rarely innate and usually the result of careful cultivation. Herbert Hoover described a moment when he was a teenager in Salem, Oregon when Miss Jennie Gray took an interest in his education. “She took me to the small library in the town,” according to Hoover’s published memoirs, “and borrowed for me a copy of Ivanhoe. That opening of the door to a great imaginative world led me promptly through much of Scott and Dickens, often at the cost of sleep. Years later, this reading added to the joys of exploring the towns and countryside in England and Scotland.” It also began Hoover’s life-long love of books and reading.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library contains several different sources for Hoover’s reading habits. The first are card files containing author, title and subject entries on books that the Hoovers owned during his tenure as Secretary of Commerce and his presidency. Another card file contains author, title and subject entries on books that were gifts to the Hoovers. A final card file contains a list of books borrowed from the Library of Congress. The hundreds of titles clearly establish that Herbert and Lou Hoover were voracious readers.
When they occupied the White House in March 1929, the Hoovers were surprised to see that the residence was bereft of any serious reading materials. The problem was brought to the attention of the American Booksellers who appointed a committee of ten prominent individuals to rectify the situation. The committee was asked to select 500 books “to fit the reading moods of the present and future occupants of the White House and of their guests. It is not a library for reference, but for enjoyment.” The subject matter ranged from fiction (classic, contemporary, and detective), biography, history, politics, world affairs, travel, poetry, drama, philosophy, science, sociology, art, and children’s books. The “Home Library for the White House” was presented to President Hoover on April 25, 1930. Later Hoover quipped to a guest, “If they sent those here to educate me, I’m afraid it was too late. I’d read 85% of them before.” The numerous renovations and changes by subsequent administrations have removed the library from the shelves and it is only known through promotional materials.
Hoover was especially fond of detective novels. One humorous illustration is found in a letter Lewis Strauss wrote to Hugh Gibson on May 6, 1919. Strauss served Hoover in many different capacities over the years and at this time was part of the American delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference. Many of the young men that Hoover mentored knew they were accepted as part of the inner circle when Hoover allowed them to refer to him as “Chief.” Strauss wrote: “The Chief asked me to thank you for the gentle hint which you must have put in Mrs. Lansing’s ear. As a result of which we are today in receipt of six volumes of very lurid fiction which have already been dog-eared by the President, Col. House and the Secretary of State. The Chief was beginning to fear that he had come to the end of such things, or at least, had caught up with the production of oriental murders, high larceny and diplomatic burglary. The receipt of these new horrors has given him a new lease on life.”