Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: “Dreams from My Father” (Barack Obama)

(Originally posted by The Popped Kernel on

“Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar.” When the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) made this claim in October 2009, we were suspect. But after reading Barack Obama’s first book, we were not.

“Dreams from My Father” is a powerful book. That it comes from an American president, even more so.

This does not mean we don’t have criticisms of the book. We do. But first, what we liked.

The first part of the book – “Origins” – should be required reading. Period. Beautifully written and insightfully observed, it’s a universally human story about identity – Obama’s own and others’.

An incredibly rich passage of “Origins” – and reflective of the book’s seasoned soul – comes near the beginning. Obama is describing his maternal grandfather, a white WWII veteran from Kansas who decided to move the family out west to Hawaii:

“He would always be like that, my grandfather, always searching for that new start, always running away from the familiar. By the time the family arrived in Hawaii, his character would have been fully formed, I think – the generosity and eagerness to please, the awkward mix of sophistication and provincialism, the rawness of emotion that could make him at once tactless and easily bruised. His was an American character, one typical of men of his generation, men who embraced the notion of freedom and individualism and the open road without always knowing its price, and whose enthusiasms could as easily lead to the cowardice of McCarthyism as to the heroics of World War II. Men who were both dangerous and promising precisely because of their fundamental innocence; men prone, in the end, to disappointment.”

The passage has a human frailty and honesty about it, a certain poetry. That it comes from a politician is both surprising and refreshing. Obama credits his grandfather’s spirit, as described in the passage, for the family’s move to Hawaii, a move leading his mom to his dad and ultimately leading to Obama’s torn existence and storied journey to the White House.

The next (and last) two parts of the book – “Chicago” and “Kenya” – are not as impressive. Obama’s writing becomes tired – what once was profound now feels flowery. (Perhaps it’s all profound but that too much depth fatigues.) The story also strikes us as less engaging – what once was timeless insight is now more descriptive of events. At this point in the book, it’s who Obama is that keeps our attention, not the book itself. If you’re not an Obama fan, or don’t care to be, you don’t have to read these sections. But if you’re interested in knowing how Obama developed his political chops (“Chicago”) and how he uncovered pieces of his identity in Africa (“Kenya”), then do.

Acute observers of Obama have noticed a man torn between lofty ideals and grounded realism, between the glory of greatness and the humility of service. This book is a subtle reflection of that – perhaps an internal tug-of-war between his instinct for full transparency and his ambitions for political office. You get the sense he wants to share an unfiltered version of his story, but also that he’s holding back in some respects – not in the beginning so much as once he reaches “Chicago.” There’s a level of personal depth that he simply loses as he takes us beyond his college years. He begins more to report than to reflect. Perhaps that’s what dries out the book – this shift from insightful reflection with universal implication to deflective reporting with mildly interesting vignettes.

Are we being too harsh on the last two parts of the book? Maybe, but only because the first part is so darn good. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that President Obama is one heck of a writer, arguably the most powerful – in political and literary terms – since Julius Caesar.

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