Book review: Dreams from my Father

I got Dreams from my Father, Barack Obama’s autobiography, from Read It Swap It in September 2010. It then stayed on the shelf for the next two years, because as soon as it arrived I remembered that I don’t really like reading autobiographies, still less those of politicians! My Mount TBR challenge seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally get this one read – although it did take me most of the year to get around to it, so clearly I still wasn’t that eager…

Once I started reading it though, I actually got quite into it. I think it helps that although it’s promoted as “the President’s autobiography”, it isn’t really – Obama wrote this when he was a young man, fresh out of law school, and had yet to enter politics. He claims that he hadn’t even considered going into politics by that point, and I’m inclined to believe him. I don’t think he’d have written a book this honest if he had an eye on the Presidency one day.

Rather than a standard politician’s autobiography, Dreams is a reflective exploration of one young man’s relationship with his family, history and race. If the writer hadn’t gone on to become President of the United States, this would still be an interesting read: an honest, often moving account of growing up as a mixed race child in a white family in first Hawaii, then Indonesia; returning to the States and spending his young adulthood attempting to understand his racial identity; forging a career as a “community organiser” in deprived neighbourhoods in Chicago; and finally travelling to Kenya to find out about the father he never really knew, and his extended family in Africa. It’s a good read, and a well-written one – this kind of writing can easily become mawkish, but it never falls into that trap.

But of course, this isn’t just any man’s writing. It’s impossible to keep from your mind the salient fact that the young man writing this, the man who is by turns angry, empathetic, confused, saddened, and optimistic, grew up to become the most powerful man on the planet. If you read Dreams without knowing that, it would be an interesting but probably unremarkable read. Reading it with that knowledge though, it becomes extraordinary. I kept wondering throughout how much of what Obama wrote in this book still holds true. Does he still have the same opinions? He talks a bit about how one of the problems facing poor, predominantly black neighbourhoods is that the best and brightest within the community inevitably move away, moving onwards and upwards to better jobs and more expensive neighbourhoods, and stop trying to improve things for those they grow up with. He mentions feeling guilty for that reason when he left his job as a community organiser in Chicago to go to law school – I wonder if that stayed a concern as he went into politics? After all, he’s about as far away now as it’s possible to be from the people he was trying to help back then!

One thing that stands out strongly throughout the book is Obama’s empathy. That’s apparent all the way through as one of his strongest characteristics, and is probably an effect of his upbringing. His account of his childhood, first in Hawaii, then in Indonesia after his mother married an Indonesian man, is striking in its diversity. You get the impression that the young Obama saw much more of the world, and of people in different cultures and different social classes, than most of his contemporaries. I couldn’t help thinking of Mitt Romney, and how utterly uninterested in anyone different from himself he seemed in the recent US elections – and also drawing a parallel with our (in the UK) current cabinet of millionaires! I’m not going to comment on Obama’s presidency here, partly because I don’t really feel qualified to, but it did strike me that this should be a prerequisite for anyone running for government, in any country: an interest in how people live, in all walks of life. Obama clearly has this, and I suspect that has been key to his electoral success: people pick up on the fact that he actually understands a little about their lives.

But this blog isn’t about politics, it’s about books! Judged purely as a book, I think Dreams is very good. I’m not sure it would have quite the same impact if it hadn’t been written (unknowingly or not) by a future US President, but it’s still a memoir with plenty of interesting things to say on race and class, in America and globally. It’s also one of the few autobiographies I’ve ever managed to finish – usually they bore me to tears, so the fact that I finished this in a mere week or so speaks very well of it!

Verdict: 3.5/5

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