Washington: In college, as he was getting involved in protests against the apartheid government in South Africa, Barack Obama noticed, he has written, “that people had begun to listen to my opinions”.
Words, the young Obama realized, had the power “to transform”: “With the right words everything could change—South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.”
Avid reader: Barack Obama (centre) with wife Michelle. Stan Honda / AFP
Much has been made of Obama’s eloquence— his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire—but his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.
Obama’s first book, Dreams From My Father (which surely stands as the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president), suggests that throughout his life, he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others and as a means of breaking out of the bubble of selfhood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame.
He recalls that he read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and W.E.B. Du Bois when he was an adolescent, in an effort to come to terms with his racial identity and later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers such as Nietzsche and St Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed.
As a boy growing up in Indonesia, Obama learnt about the American civil rights movement through books his mother gave him, and later, as a fledgling community organizer in Chicago, he found inspiration in Parting the Waters, the first instalment of Taylor Branch’s multivolume biography of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
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More recently, books have supplied Obama with concrete ideas about governance: It has been widely reported that Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Abraham Lincoln’s decision to include former opponents in his cabinet, informed Obama’s decision to name his chief Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as secretary of state. In other cases, books about FDR’s first 100 days in office and Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, about Afghanistan and the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), have provided useful background material on some of the myriad challenges Obama will face upon taking office.
Obama tends to take a magpie approach to reading—ruminating upon writers’ ideas and picking and choosing those that flesh out his vision of the world or open promising new avenues of inquiry.
His predecessor, George W. Bush, in contrast, tended to race through books in competitions with Karl Rove (who recently boasted that he beat the president by reading 110 books to Bush’s 95 in 2006), or passionately embrace an author’s thesis as an idee fixe. Whereas Bush and many of his aides favoured prescriptive books— Natan Sharansky’s Case for Democracy, which pressed the case for promoting democracy around the world, say, or Eliot A. Cohen’s Supreme Command, which argued that political strategy should drive military strategy—Obama has tended to look to non-ideological histories and philosophical works that address complex problems without any easy solutions, such as Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings, which emphasize the ambivalent nature of human beings and the dangers of wilful innocence and infallibility.
What’s more, Obama’s love of fiction and poetry—William Shakespeare’s plays, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead are mentioned on his Facebook page, along with the Bible, Lincoln’s collected writings and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance—has not only given him a heightened awareness of language; it has also imbued him with a tragic sense of history and a sense of the ambiguities of the human condition quite unlike the Manichaean view of the world so often invoked by Bush.
Obama has said he wrote “very bad poetry” in college and his biographer David Mendell suggests that he once “harboured some thoughts of writing fiction as an avocation”. For that matter, Dreams From My Father evinces an instinctive storytelling talent (which would later serve the author well on the campaign trail) and that odd combination of empathy and detachment gifted novelists possess.
In that memoir, Obama seamlessly managed to convey points of view different from his own (a harbinger, perhaps, of his promises to bridge partisan divides and his ability to channel voters’ hopes and dreams) while conjuring the many places he lived during his peripatetic childhood.
He is at once the solitary outsider who learns to stop pressing his nose to the glass and the coolly omniscient observer providing us with a choral view of his past.
As Baldwin once observed, language is both “a political instrument, means, and proof of power”, and “the most vivid and crucial key to identity: it reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity”.
For Obama, whose improbable life story many voters regard as the embodiment of the American Dream, identity and the relationship between the personal and the public remain crucial issues. Indeed, Dreams From My Father, written before he entered politics, was both a searching Bildungsroman and an autobiographical quest to understand his roots—a quest in which he cast himself as both a Telemachus in search of his father and an Odysseus in search of a home.
Like Dreams From My Father, many of the novels Obama reportedly admires deal with the question of identity: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon concerns a man’s efforts to discover his origins and come to terms with his roots; Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook recounts a woman’s struggles to articulate her own sense of self; and Ellison’s Invisible Man grapples with the difficulty of self-definition in a race-conscious America and the possibility of transcendence.
The poems of Elizabeth Alexander, whom Obama chose as his inaugural poet, probe the intersection between the private and the political, time present and time past, while the verse of Derek Walcott (a copy of whose collected poems was glimpsed in Obama’s hands) explores what it means to be a “divided child”, caught on the margins of different cultures, dislocated and rootless perhaps, but free to invent a new self.
This notion of self-creation is an American one—a founding principle, and a trope addressed by such classic works as The Great Gatsby—and it seems to exert a strong hold on Obama’s imagination.
In a 2005 essay in Time magazine, he wrote of the humble beginnings that he and Lincoln shared, adding that the 16th president reminded him of “a larger, fundamental element of American life—the enduring belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams”.
Though some critics have taken Obama to task for self-consciously italicizing parallels between himself and Lincoln, there are in fact a host of uncanny correspondences between these two former Illinois state legislators who had short stints in Congress under their belts before coming to national prominence with speeches showcasing their eloquence: Two cool, self-contained men, who managed to stay calm and graceful under pressure; two stoics embracing the virtues of moderation and balance; two relatively new politicians who were initially criticized for their lack of experience and for questioning an invasion of a country that, in Lincoln’s words, was “in no way molesting, or menacing the US”.
As Fred Kaplan’s illuminating new biography (Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer) makes clear, Lincoln, like Obama, was a lifelong lover of books, indelibly shaped by his reading—most notably, in his case, the Bible and Shakespeare—which honed his poetic sense of language and his philosophical view of the world. Both men employ a densely allusive prose, richly embedded with the fruit of their reading, and both use language as a tool by which to explore and define themselves. Eventually in Lincoln’s case, Kaplan notes, “the tool, the toolmaker, and the tool user became inseparably one. He became what his language made him.”
The incandescent power of Lincoln’s language, its resonance and rhythmic cadences, as well as his ability to shift gears between the magisterial and the down-to-earth, has been a model for Obama—who has said he rereads Lincoln for inspiration—and so, too, have been the uses to which Lincoln put his superior language skills: to goad Americans to complete the unfinished work of the founders, and to galvanize a nation reeling from hard times with a new vision of reconciliation and hope.
©2009/The New York Times