Books gave Obama his voice

Much has been made of Obama’s eloquence. But his ardent love of reading has not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans...

Written by New York Times | Washington | Published: January 20, 2009 10:58 pm

Much has been made of Obama’s eloquence. But his ardent love of reading has not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans,they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.

Obama’s first book,Dreams From My Father,suggests that throughout his life he has turned to books as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and the bubble of power and fame. He read James Baldwin,Ralph Ellison,Langston Hughes,Richard Wright and W E B Du Bois in an effort to come to terms with his racial identity. In college,he immersed himself in the works of Nietzsche and St Augustine to figure out what he truly believed.

As a fledgling community organiser in Chicago,he found inspiration in Parting the Waters,the first installment of Taylor Branch’s multivolume biography of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. More recently,books have supplied Obama with concrete ideas about governance. His love of fiction and poetry — Shakespeare’s plays,Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead,along with Lincoln’s collected writings — has imbued him with a tragic sense of history and a sense of the ambiguities of the human condition.

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