It must take an idealist, a dreamer, and a seeker to put oneself out there so far as to run for President of the United States of America. In the person of Barack Obama, I find an intelligent, self-effacing man with just enough dream in him to not only be a leader, but a leader of consequence.
But Dreams From My Father is not a political book. After gaining recognition as the first African-American editor-in-chief of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, Obama was contracted to write a book from a major publisher. What came out was a memoir that traces the author's wayward origins -- from Kansas to Hawaii to Indonesia to Kenya, and not only those places, but also disparate races: American Midwestern whites, Southern Blacks, Black Africans, Arabs, and even an Indonesian.
Obama's variegated ancestry forces him to search constantly for community and place in a world that prefers easy classifications. We start with the story of his white American grandparents who help his mother raise him. And Obama inherits a seemingly unknowable paternal side: his father, an African Kenyan attending Hawaii University, married his mother only to leave her after a mere year.
In prose that has difficulty doing justice to the wideranging travels and around-the-world connections of his family, Obama then covers his youth, where he experiences outsider status. One complaint I have is his glossing over of his five years spent in Indonesia as a youth. I appreciate the author's honesty in describing his somewhat misspent youth: potsmoking and searching for a political philosophy.
Then Obama attends college at Occidental and Columbia. Always reading, he decides to go to one of the blackest places in America to find some roots: the South Side of Chicago, where he works as a community organizer. This section and his trip to Kenya form the bulk of the memoir, which many have complained is simply too long and filled with extra details.
Obama's stunted attempts at poetic prose I do not mind. It illustrates a mind trying to better itself. Ironically, the author's strength is also his weakness: he defers constantly to the words of others, portraying himself as passive in a world where he went from college graduate to organizer to the top of Harvard Law as if by coincidence. But this creates a narrative where we see what Obama sees, in the classic "show, don't tell" directive for good writing. And since he leaves it to our imagination, we feel what he feels.
Obama's search for a middle path -- a way of understanding all of the sides, races, and factions -- causes him to actually personify a perspective that seeks only to acknowledge the wonder of the human experience. What else is there in a writer? Polemic, lecture, and preaching are bad things for him, as they are for me. Some see Obama as "overly conciliatory" to the Right. But as it appears in his book, I interpret this as a definite good. Imagine: a President that would hearken back to the Kennedys, who could use Shakespeare and Tennyson to understand world events.
One unfortunate effect of reading Dreams From My Father is how it caused me to bristle at the racist political milieu we so suffer from. Read the book: you'll understand Obama. But people don't read much; we are victims of an ugly, divisive, ignorant 24-hour news cycle talking points media culture. In returning to humanity, I can only happily support Obama. The author as well as the man puts ideals first and self second. We lack for men of this quality, to reference Joseph Conrad.
A good read and a politics that does not sell hope from the outside, but through the narrative itself. Recommended.