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Obama reading Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World
(The New York Times, 2008)


 

       

crossing that bridge

 
 

flaunting bookishness!

   

 

Barack Obama is the first President to have written a memoir before becoming President.  David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, and author of The Bridge, The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, talks about President Obama’s telling of his own story, the making of it into a universal story, the way Obama “straddles races, creeds, points of view,” literally becoming the bridge.

 

Barack Obama was already the author of two books before he took office, and once wanted to be a writer.  In Chicago, before going to Harvard Law School, he wrote short stories at night.  Remnick says that Obama went to law school to acquire "...in very idealistic terms, instruments to be more powerful and capable of doing what he was interested in doing."   

 

During the campaign, Obama sought out Doris Kearns Goodwin after reading her book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals, discussing “...the temperamental qualities that Obama admired in Lincoln; his ability to endure defeat and acknowledge error, his capacity to manage his emotions in the heat of the moment...”  Kearns says that that Obama said to her: “I really want to be a President who makes a difference.”  And perhaps, we think, the difference is books.  After all he ran against John McCain (who needed a co-writer, Mark Salter, to write his autobiography), and Obama's predecessor at the White House, was remarkably, to quote Remnick, “incurious."  Obama has talked about favorite writers and books, listing significant influences: Jefferson, Emerson, Lincoln, Twain, King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American, Gandhi’s autobiography.

 


"I cannot live without books..."
Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Manuscript Letter,
June 10, 1815

 

Presidents consistently considered among the greatest have been rather bookish: Jefferson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt.  Thomas Jefferson's vast library was sold to Congress as a replacement for the books burned by the British; John Adams wrote to Jefferson regarding the event: "By the Way I envy you that immortal honour: but I cannot enter into competition with you for my books are not half the number of yours."  Jefferson replied, "I cannot live without books....”  Lincoln and the influence of the language of the Bible and Shakespeare.  Theodore Roosevelt, as Remnick notes, wrote his first book while still at Harvard: a naval history of the war of 1812.  He was capable of reading 2 or 3 books a night, and is said to have read over 500 books in 1906.  In Memoirs of a Monticello slave, Issac Jefferson (1775-c.1849), described Jefferson's reading habits: "Old Master had abundance of books; sometimes would have twenty of 'em down on the floor at once-read fust one, then tother."

 

Henry Louis Gates tells Remnick that Obama and his defining speech on race, A More Perfect Union, made him think of a “post-modern Frederick Douglass” and goes on to say: "Frederick Douglass is the figure of mediation in 19th-century American literature; he, the mulatto, mediates between white and black, slave and free, between “animal” and “man.”  Obama, as mulatto, as reconciler, self-consciously performs the same function in our time, remarkably self-consciously.  And the comparisons don’t stop there: they both launched their careers with speeches and their first books were autobiographies.  They spoke and wrote themselves into being....” 

 

Obama, in a different but equally important way, is also a bridge to the past, to the bookishness of Presidents of old....

 

Read: The Bridge, The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, David Remnick

 

Read: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin

 

Donate: New York Public Library

 

Tags: literature   library  history  politics  books

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A bookstand, probably designed by Thomas Jefferson, which can be rotated to refer to several open books

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