I read this largely out of curiosity about what makes Obama tick. It’s not often that you get an unfiltered look at the mind and life of a man who is running for president, and he holds back very little here. I thought I got a very good sense not necessarily of who Obama is, but of his path to becoming the person he now is, and came away much more impressed than I was going in. You can tell he was young and uncertain when he wrote this, both from the occasional stylistic hiccup or overelaboration, and from the very real soul-searching he’s doing, but for all his uncertainty, he definitely had an unusual degree of purpose and perceptiveness even then.
The book is all about the search for identity and community in the face of fragmentation and alienation, both of which are very real battles for myself and many other young liberals, and thoughtful young Americans in general. This search for some sort of authentic community, and an authentic personal identity within said community was the driving force in his early life, as it has been in mine so far, and it was heartening to see that there is maybe a way to come out on the other side of that as a whole and formidable person with a satisfying role to play in a larger community.
I came away most impressed with his ability to empathize, his fair-mindedness, his pragmatic idealism, and his ability and willingness to grapple with and assimilate the many fractious parts of his identity and experience. The book deals much more frankly and heavily with race than I anticipated. From what I read here, I see that he hasn’t so much transcended race, as figured out a 3rd-way that acknowledges and grows out of his experiences as a black American, but refuses to be wholly defined or constrained by them. A way forward from identity and issue politics to a broader liberal/progressive outlook, in other words.
Something else I was impressed with was his sense of the importance of stories. His ability to tell his stories in a way that allows him to both figure out who he is, and reach out to others is vital. I think Kerry’s inability to or fear of telling his compelling and potentially resonant personal story about his experiences with Vietnam had a lot to do with his loss in ‘04, and I’m excited to see a candidate who can tell us compelling stories about who he is, who we are, and what we can strive to be as a country.