Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A jaunt through the President's past

It was one of those books I never would have picked up of my own volition, but one which I nevertheless enjoyed and which proved to be timely. I didn't read it when I was theoretically supposed to, but I read it when it was the book I needed. Thinking about my various developing interests and goals, Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, in some measure addressed those.

My main reaction to the book, or to the first half at least, was, admittedly, a sort of gleeful "I know something you don't know." Obama says in the introduction:
"The result is autobiographical, although whenever someone's asked me over the course of these last three years just what the book is about, I've usually avoided such a description. An autobiography promises feats worthy of record, conversations with famous people, a central role in important events. There is none of that here." (pg. xvi)
The book was published in 1995. Before he'd run for president, before congress, even before, I think, he ran for state senate. Admittedly it's true that the scope of this book doesn't involve anybody famous or any big important events, but we all know, reading it, where his life is going to go. I kept thinking about the various ordinary people he befriends in the course of this story, and wondering where they are now and what they think of him. And, really, he's a very ordinary person.

There's a passage fairly early in the book about then mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington. He was the city's first black mayor in 1983, and Obama says,
"His picture was everywhere: on the walls of shoe repair shops and beauty parlors; still glued to lampposts from the last campaign; even in the windows of the Korean dry cleaners and Arab grocery stores; displayed prominently, like some protective totem." (pg. 147)
I can't help but be reminded of those red, white and blue Obama posters plastered in similar places in 2008, many of which I'm sure are still there. It's a funny occasion of two times squeezing and blurring together, Obama's own observation of such posters and later, his own posters, which really had exactly the same effect.

Obama writes rather like he wants to be writing a novel. I suppose this is a story, memoir rather than the usual strain of nonfiction, and it's hard to write impressions of various times in the past in any other way. It's not a jarring style, though it can get a little flowery at times. I've gotta say I was pleased we've got a president whose vocabulary is better than mine (though not by much).

While the book, which all UW freshman were given last summer and told to read, has been much mocked by various people I know here, having acquired the usual stigma of required reading, I thought it was a worthwhile read. Obama goes through his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, college, his time as a community organizer in Chicago, and his first visit to Kenya, so I learned a lot about his past that I didn't know. Not to be political, but it's nice to be surprised about some of his history, nice to have a president whose story isn't totally predictable and in a certain mold. And it's a good story, really. The different sections vary a lot in tone and subject matter, but the whole manages to be cohesive. Anyway, I liked it.

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