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January 20, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | January 20, 2009 |

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I read Obama’s biography in tandem with John McCain’s. The differences between the two books is as stark as the difference between the two men’s styles of public presentation. While McCain’s book is matter of fact and not that impressive in terms of writing skill, Obama’s book is lyrical, evocative, and fairly well-written. Whether Obama’s oratorical skills and charisma are preferable in a president is a question up for debate; there is no question in my mind that Obama’s writing makes for a better book. Although McCain’s story of his years as a POW is naturally more compelling, Obama’s self-reflection and exploration of his family’s history draws the reader in and gives one a window into his own experience.

While McCain’s book reads like he just sat down and told stories to his ghostwriter, who wrote them out unedited, Obama has written a book with the structural complexity of a novel. He begins in the middle, with the phone call that informs him of the death of a father he barely knew, and goes back to his roots, starting with his grandparent’s courtship and migration around the country, finally landing in Hawaii, where Obama would spend much of his childhood. Like many novels, I found myself losing interest around the 2/3rds mark, as the book seemed to lose its way.

Obama writes about his life with an incredible amount of self-reflection, exactly the thing that is so lacking in McCain’s autobiography. In the introduction to my edition, Obama talks about how he looks back and wishes he could cut the book by about 50 pages (which would improve it, for sure) and that some of the things he has written have proven to be bad for him politically. Yet he says that he would not change any of those aspects, because they are a part of his story. Although the book is interesting even without knowing where Obama will end up in a few months (he won! Yay! — DR), it is especially interesting because we have never had an opportunity to read a presidential candidate/nominee’s story of their life before the prospect of a serious run for president was in his mind; that alone makes it fascinating, but it is not the only thing that makes it worth reading. Obama’s struggle with his identity is, to some degree, what a lot of people go through, but also heightened by the fact that he was raised by white parents who couldn’t help him deal with being one of the only black kids in his school. He went through the same struggle to find a meaningful place in the world that I see a lot of folks in their 20s going through now. That fact is what really impressed me: put all together, his life is unusual, but the individual parts of it seem almost universal. It seems entirely improbable that his life ended up where it is now.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of fff’s reviews.

Cannonball Read / fff

Books | January 20, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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