THE BOOKS BARACK OBAMA READS
The books Barack Obama reads can teach us
far more about the man than all the speeches
with which he in the past has tried to reach us,
since he, by making his selections, reaches
beyond both Shakespeare and the Bible and
the Emersonian tract called “Self-Reliance,”
to Reinhold Niebuhr. He must understand
the dangers that beset us from defiance
of innocence when we espouse infall-
ibility, ignoring the ambiv-
alence of good and evil, though banal,
two factors with which we must learn to live.
One small step for mankind, we surely hope,
though he’ll just be the President, not Pope.
Michiko Kakutani writes about the books that President-elect Barack Obama reads (“From Books, New President Found Voice,” NYT, January 19, 2009):
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 Mr. 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.” Much has been made of Mr. 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. Mr. 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 — as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood 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 that later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed…. What’s more, Mr. Obama’s love of fiction and poetry — 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 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 Manichean view of the world so often invoked by Mr. Bush.
Note that Reinhold Niebuhr is the alleged author of the words that formulate the twelve-step program, first used by Alcoholics Anonymous and now adopted by many similar groups.
© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/19/09