Back Shelf Review: Barack Obama

(Editor’s note: These reviews are written post-election, but I feel compelled to insert a qualifier. I voted for Barack Obama in both the primary and general election and volunteered for his campaign in the fall, but do not write these reviews in an effort to add more hero worship. What follows is a judgment of Obama the writer, not the politician or idealist.)

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States was a milestone for more reasons than we can count. Most obviously, he is the first African-America elected to the office, he is a first-term senator elected in a time of war and economic crisis, he comes from a background whose diversity is unmatched in American politics and is also the first candidate to obtain a following typically reserved for rock stars.

What makes it really remarkable, at least to some circles, is that Obama is the first man to be elected to the presidency who has two titles that were No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. An acclaimed author before he even declared his candidacy, Obama’s books have been praised by everyone from Jann Wenner to Michiko Kakutani to Christopher Buckley. And even separated from the mythos surrounding Obama, they deserve every bit of praise.

dreams-from-my-father-barack-obama-paperback-coverThe first title, “Dreams from My Father,” was published in 1995 following another groundbreaking Obama presidential election, this one for the Harvard Law Review. A son born from two different worlds – a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas – Obama traces his journey to find out where he belongs. We see his childhood in Indonesia, rebellious youth in Hawaii and his work as a community organizer in Chicago, all culminating in a journey to Kenya to understand the man whose name he bears.

Little of the story is likely new to readers, considering how inextricably Obama’s biography is bound to his popular image. The surprising part is just how much of his story he is willing to share, even considering he wrote this book before entering politics. “Dreams” is a very personal book, touching on of his sense of alienation in school, belonging to “the club of disaffection” as a young adult and the early disappointments of Chicago’s South Side. His background may be diverse, but the tradeoff is that he has nowhere he truly belongs, and for endless paragraphs he goes inside himself to try to figure that out.

In the hands of many writers this sort of consideration could get old, but Obama’s writing is something else: graceful prose, every word carefully chosen and reflecting a wide understanding of literature. His descriptions of Indonesia and Chicago are evocative but avoid dwelling too heavily on the topic, while the conversations he has had to fill in from memory never feel inauthentic. He also regularly uses the triptych (or rule-of-three) effect as expertly as he does in his speeches, creating a choral effect and examples that remain in the head.

The last third of the book where Obama travels to Kenya is marvelous prose: heartfelt conversations with family members, a sense of wonderment at the scope of the country and the final moment at his father’s grave that comes across as nothing short of rebirth. As he looks back over the tumult that marks his ancestors, realizing how his path is tied to theirs, the feeling is so real that you cannot help but be pulled fully in and forget whose name is on the cover.
audacity
Obama said in a revised introduction that the social and political implications of his story are meant for another book, and he kept that promise with the release of “The Audacity of Hope” in 2006. In “Audacity” Obama turns his critical eye from himself to the United States, discussing the structure of its government and the issues that shape its citizens. He tells the stories of the people he spoke to during campaigning, and also shows his own growth into a family man.

In the prologue to “Dreams” Obama quotes a reporter who after reading commented “I wonder if you can be that interesting in the next one you write.” It’s a valid question, especially when matched to the mastery of his first effort, and the 10-year gap between books. Certainly, “Audacity” is more of a politician’s book than his first effort, named after his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and as a politician’s book, it naturally takes a different tone.

This book is a clear template of Obama’s political platform, and virtually all of his speeches from the campaign can be tied to some chapter in it, be they his landmark speech on race (“Audacity” is ripe with discussion on Chicago’s racial make-up) or his attacks on President Bush (discussion of the Constitution regularly brings up the Senate debate on conservative judges). Here he is writing to convey a message, rather than write to organize his thoughts, and while the voice is the same it carries a professorial, occasionally dull tone.

But Obama the senator has not obscured Obama the writer, and while “Audacity” doesn’t pull the heartstrings it does certainly make us empathize. In many ways it’s even cleverer than “Dreams,” using each personal example as a gateway to pull you in. A deeply heartfelt section on meeting his wife Michelle and raising two daughters is bound to his views on the American family and the pressures of a household, and his discussion on the Constitution recalls Senate legends like Robert Byrd he has felt privileged to learn from.

In comparing the distance between these two books, Obama unsurprisingly puts it the right way in “Audacity”: “If I am wiser, it is mainly because I have traveled a little further down the path I have chosen for myself, the path of politics, and have gotten a glimpse of where it may lead, for good and for ill.” What we see between the two books is maturation, Obama having come to enough comfort with himself that he wants to bring what he has learned to others. His writing is rooted in a sense of journey, and a sheer desire to bring us along on that travel.

Refreshingly, both books can be appreciated separately from the mythos of their author. “Dreams” is a masterwork, a poetic and honest tale of a man struggling to find his place; while “Audacity” is more refreshing than the ghost-written texts politicians usually turn out to add one more accomplishment to the list. Even if readers cannot dislodge Obama’s image from their minds while reading, they will not only learn that their commander-in-chief is truly emphatic and intelligent, but will be assured that after his term he will write the best memoir to ever come from an American president.

For more exhaustively researched articles on the relationship between Obama and literature, I recommend:
-    Barack by the books, by Laura Miller, Salon, July 7, 2008
-    From Books, New President Found Voice, by Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, January 18, 2009

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3 Responses to Back Shelf Review: Barack Obama

  1. Dan Wohl says:

    “he comes from a background more diverse than any candidate in recent memory”

    I definitely think the “in recent memory” is not necessary. More like “in the collective memory of the entirety of American history”

    • lesismore says:

      You’re right – I felt reluctant to be so superlative, but the clarifier can be cut out. Four years now and you’re still editing my work. :)

      How’s New York treating you?

  2. [...] from the standard reviews I offer, instead taking a bit broader capacity in the same style as my Barack Obama article, either focusing on an author or more than one book thematically linked together. No schedule has [...]

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