Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Audacity of Hope

disclaimer: This is a long one.

Every year I make a New Year's resolution to read one book a month. The first time I think I made it through February (two whole books!), the year that it was March or April. Last year I lasted till June. This year, by the letter of the law, I blew it in the first month. But only by a couple days, as I finally wrapped up reading Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope. Which is the first non-fiction work I think I've read since college. Well, not counting the tech books I edit every day, anyway. Anyway, what with it being Super Tuesday and all, it seems a good time to give some thoughts both on the book and the man.

I'm no more qualified to tell you if Audacity of Hope is a groundbreaking work than I am qualified to explain to you the theories behind quantum physics. And certainly, Obama's critics can rightly point out that the book doesn't offer a lot of specifics in regards to Obama's plans for this country. But that's really not what this book is about. It's about the man himself. It's a look at how his life experiences have molded him into the person he is today and a primer on how he thinks about issues confronting both the country and the world. So, if you're looking for him to explain a detailed tax plan or how exactly he'll get the money to support a universal health care system, steer clear. If you want to know why he supports the notion of universal programs, such as healthcare, or why he thinks some regulation of the free market is important, then this is the book to read.

Broken down into chapters ranging from his thoughts on political parties and the Constitution of the United States to his feelings about race, faith and "The World Beyond Our Borders," in Audacity of Hope Obama offers a direct and honest look into his mind. It was a refreshing read in a lot of ways that I wasn't expecting. Let me explain...

With this being an election year I'm reminded just how much of what we know about any candidate for office comes from television. Yes, the print media offers up its opinions on anything and everything, but what I'm talking about is what we learn from the candidates themselves. Their own words and actions. And it's hard to escape the notion that after watching numerous debates, interviews, etc. you really learn very little about these people. The nature of the questions they're asked, the degree of mandatory pandering to every interest group under the sun, etc. all obscure the person behind the persona. Contrasting that with having read The Audacity of Hope, it's impossible to escape the fact that I learned so much more about Obama himself from those 360 pages than I have from any TV debate, interview or campaign ad in which he's featured.

Sure, you can pander in a book just as well as you can in a debate. And there's an argument to be made that a book is less reliable because it can be so carefully crafted and molded to fit an image you want to project. But, being an editor (even if it's just tech books), I've found the opposite is more frequently true. I think it's much harder to hide who you are when writing 130,000 words than in a 60 second answer to an interview question. It's all in the words a person uses, like when Obama talks about why he prefers to fly commercial when traveling from DC to his home in Illinois, despite the many amenities of private flights.

If you're really looking at the words themselves you'll also know when they're coming from the author himself or from a ghost. (There's no way this was ghost written.) It's the little things we do in language to convey a thought or idea that will betray you as a genuine voice or a panderer. And I found Audacity of Hope to be a very genuine book.

I've also found in my time as an editor that there are two kinds of good writers. There are good writers who are, for lack of a better term, artsy. They know how to use words to convey a thought or idea or paint a picture in sometimes unbelievable ways. I'm no fan of Jane Austin novels, but you can't deny the eloquence of her writing. Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, as well as numerous movies) can turn a phrase like no TV/movie writer I've ever seen. In the online world, when he's on his game, Sean Sands at Gamers With Jobs is one of those guys who just knows how to bend the English language to his will. Then there are writers who aren't especially gifted with the language, but they have this innate ability to dissect and analyze a topic and use language to convey a message or tell a story better than the rest of us. In print I think of guys like Raymond E. Feist (wrote The Riftwar saga). J.R.R. Tolkein he's not, but at the same time, he can spin a compelling yarn. Online I think of guys like Bill Harris at Dubious Quality. It's not the way Bill turns a phrase that makes his blog one of the best on the web, but rather the way he is able to use language to convey his thoughts and ideas. And this, back to the point, is what Obama does.

Obama, be it in this book, in a stump speech, or at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, isn't a gifted writer/speaker in the way, say, Martin Luther King Jr. was. He's gifted with the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas; with the ability to put into words what a lot of the rest of us are thinking, but can't quite articulate. His words bely the workings of a contemplative, complex and often brilliant mind. When he writes about people he's met as a state legislator at town halls across Illinois, or his work as a community organizer in downtown Chicago, and how those people have influenced his policy ideas on matters of health care or free trade, it reads genuine. When he talks about the negative impact his political life has had on his family and his insecurities as a father, he describes feelings that any father can recognize as the real thing. And when he talks about America's role on the international stage it's obvious there's a mind at works that sees the world in the necessary shades of gray that it really is.

So, if you want to get to know Obama the presidential candidate, my best advice to you is to turn the TV off and read this book. This is where you'll learn if Obama is the kind of person you want to occupy the Oval Office. I was leaning his way before reading it, but my reservations about him were numerous. Now, I have no questions, and should he fail to win the nomination I don't think "crushed" would be too strong a word to describe how I'd feel. (I'm not a Clinton hater, but as I've said before, the notion of Bush, Clinton/Clinton, Bush/Bush, Clinton/? is much too aristocratic for me. And no, there is no Republican on the ballot for which I'd cast my vote.)

Hopefully when all is said and done today, he'll have at least stayed close to Clinton in the delegate count. He doesn't need to win every big state today, just so long as it stays close. (The fact that delegates are split rather than winner take all is what's so great about the Democratic primary/caucus system this year.) If he can do that, I like his chances to get the nomination as we move into the spring.