My plan to read a lot of books this year was derailed by Barack Obama. I started tackling his first book, Dreams from My Father (published way back in 1995), in early June, and I didn’t finish his second book, The Audacity of Hope (published 2006), until this week.
Like everyone fascinated with Obama’s rise to become America’s first black president, I had wanted to read both books for years, but I have to admit that I found parts of them, in particular Dreams, to be a little dry. Having said that, there are some marvellous insights and ideas in these books that help shed light on the type of man and leader Obama is, and the things that have shaped his political philosophies (which I admit I find myself aligned with regularly). And so I thought I’d tackle the reviews in a single post so I can compare and contrast them a little.
For starters, both books were written before Obama was first elected president in 2008. Dreams from My Father was offered to Obama because he had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and written at a time when he was just about to embark on a serious political career. It is first and foremost a memoir, a 442-page epic that traces his mixed-marriage birth, his unconventional upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, as well as his African heritage.The latter portions of the book are about his foray into politics at the grassroots level, through community organizing and church groups.
It’s not entirely chronological and it’s also not a blow-by-blow account of Obama’s life, but you do get bits and pieces of information that paint a (somewhat incomplete) picture of his life. The subtitle of the book is A Story of Race and Inheritance, so naturally race is a central theme of the book that fuels much of the discussion he has with his readers.
Hope, on the other hand, at a leaner 363 pages, came about because Obama had become a US Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party. It would be two years before he would rise to the presidency, but I assume at the time the book idea was tossed around it was envisioned that Obama would eventually run for president, with a solid chance of making history.
It’s a completely different book to Dreams in that it’s less about Obama’s life and upbringing and more about his political and spiritual beliefs as well as his views on different aspects of American culture. He doesn’t shy away from the controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortions and religion, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and he admits to taking drugs, including cocaine), though some readers may be frustrated because most of the time he simply outlines the complexities of the issues without expressing a clear cut view or providing concrete solutions (but let’s face it, who can?). The last chapter on family is really the only time in the book that Obama divulges sizable chunks of his personal life (only snippets before this), but it’s arguably the most honest and heartfelt chapter of both books.
True to their respective titles, Dreams is more more personal and centered around family, with a more contemplative, reflective tone, while Hope is more about his audacious vision for the country and filled with optimism about the future.
And so it was an interesting experience reading both books in the context of when and why they were written. It’s interesting because we know who this man will eventually become, and even in the decade or so between the two books were written we can see how much he has matured and evolved as a politician — from someone with grand ideals but apprehensions about a political career to someone who is all-in and much more aware of what compromises he has to make both in the office and at home to make it to the top. It also made me wonder what type of book Obama would pen now if had the opportunity, and whether he is now a lot more cynical and disillusioned with the whole thing.
But if Obama didn’t become the most powerful man in the world, would the books be just as interesting? Of course not. It’ll just be the life and opinions of another intelligent, articulate black man. It would still be insightful, but not nearly as exciting or compelling.
Obama’s writing is solid. He’s an excellent writer on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level, but his ability to piece together a clear narrative thread is sometimes lacking, particularly in Dreams. He also tends to be, as he admits, verbose at times, meaning the experience could be lacking if you are stuck reading a topic you don’t have a real interest in. These are common issues for most writers, especially first-time writers, which is why I feel Hope is the superior book. Given that the subject matter is more defined and written more like a series of essays rather than themed-biographies (ie, more up Obama’s alley), the voice is much stronger and more confident. You can tell he is trying to craft the persona of a future president, and when I read his words I could almost picture Obama saying them to a crowded room.
So, Dreams could have been even more personal, insightful and captivating, while Hope could have been bolder and contained more innovative solutions, but on the whole they are solid reads I’d recommend to people anywhere along the political spectrum, and together they paint an illuminating picture of who Barack Obama is and what he stands for. You might not agree with what he says or believes in, but anything that encourages positive political debate and discussion can’t be a bad thing.
Dreams from My Father – 3/5
The Audacity of Hope – 3.75/5