Bookworm Duterte’s recommended reads

Pia Ranada
Bookworm Duterte’s recommended reads
Want to know what President Duterte is reading? Here are two books he highly recommends – one about the South China Sea and another about the Mexican drug war.

One thing you might not know about President Rodrigo Duterte is that he is a bookworm. His friends and close associates will tell you he is a voracious reader who likes to spend his free time reading up on topics that interest him – whether it’s daily news or Philippine history.

A short tour around his Davao City home revealed shelves of paperback books. Some tomes end up beside his treadmill where he leaves them after an hour of work-out.

In fact, Duterte’s love for the written word finds its way into his public speeches. He goes so far as to recommend books to his audience. 

Since he became president, he has mentioned at least two books.

The first is Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert D. Kaplan, a world-renowned expert on geopolitics and foreign policy. 

Duterte mentioned this book to reporters and I saw it beside the television in his bedroom in Bahay Pangarap, his residence in Malacañang Park.

The book’s description on is telling:

“In Asia’s Cauldron, Robert D. Kaplan offers up a vivid snapshot of the nations surrounding the South China Sea, the conflicts brewing in the region at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and their implications for global peace and stability.”

Duterte said he was reading it to brush up on his knowledge of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). 

Incidentally, that was around the time the ASEAN Summit was being held in Laos. Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr had attended the gathering to bring up the historic Hague ruling on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute.

Apparently, Duterte is not alone in giving this book a thumbs-up. The New York Times, The Economist, and Financial Times approve of it as well. The New York Times says it’s a “short book with a powerful thesis.” 

No doubt the pragmatist in Duterte would’ve been attracted by the Financial Times’ review: “Muscular, deeply knowledgeable . . . Kaplan is an ultra-realist [who] takes a non-moralistic stance on questions of power and diplomacy.”

Last Wednesday, August 3, Duterte made another book recommendation, this time in front of election volunteers in Malacañang Palace. His speech was aired on national television too.

This book – surprise, surprise – is about the Mexican drug trade.

“There’s a book, [by] Ioan Grillo, it can be bought anywhere. This is the history of the failed stage of South America because of the drug problem,” he said with all the seriousness of a literature professor. 

The book’s complete title is El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. A British edition carries the title, El Narco: The Bloody Rise of the Mexican Drug Cartel 

The book has garnered several accolades, including getting longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2013 and nominated for The Guardian First Book Award in 2011.

Described as “a superb report from the front lines of narco-violence” by the Independent, Grillo’s book is a comprehensive account of the Mexican Drug War, detailing the rise of its drug cartels, the human cost of the trade, and the unsuccessful efforts of the Mexican and United States to end the war.

Grillo himself has an interesting story. He started covering drug cartels in 2001 for news outfits like Time Magazine, CNN, and the Associated Press.

His description of his experience, as written on his website, sounds joltingly familiar to scenes recently observed in the country: “Over the decade I followed the mystery to endless murder scenes on bullet-ridden streets, mountains where drugs are born as pretty flowers, and scarred criminals from prison cells to luxury condos.”

The type of book a person buries his nose into is often telling of his interests, personality, and current life priority. 

It also gives us an idea of what kind of information feeds a person’s thought process when making important decisions. The decisions Duterte makes will have major repercussions on an entire country and beyond.

If Duterte’s reading list is not your cup of tea, perhaps you would prefer to save space in your bookshelf for his partner’s favorite titles.

Honeylet Avanceña, Duterte’s common-law wife, is more inclined towards self-help books, business books, and biographies of famous people.

Biographies about Singapore’s pragmatist founding father Lee Kwan Yew and charismatic US President Bill Clinton top her list of must-reads. –

Image of book covers from

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at