I certainly would not have begun, much less finished, this book if the author and subject had not become so important. It is disjointed and rambling, parts memoir and parts abstract essay, and needed a firm edit to clarify its message. Separate from all that, however, is Barack Obama’s keen insight into race, belonging, and living a meaningful life. Listening to such a brilliant and compassionate person is time well spent. Also evident is his intuitive recognition of the power of conversation to create a world and a future, a foundation distinction for executive coaching. My favorite examples:
p. 287 That’s what the leadership was teaching me, day by day: that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.
…There was always a community if you dug deep enough. … There was poetry as well–a luminous world always present beneath the surface, a world people might offer up as a gift to me, if only I remembered to ask.
p. 495 What is a family? It it just a genetic chain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labor? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?
I could list various possibilities. But I’d never arrived at a definite answer, aware early on that, given my circumstances, such an effort was bound to fail. Instead, I drew a series of circles around myself, with borders that shifted as time passed and faces changed but that nevertheless offered the illusion of control. An inner circle, where love was constant and claims unquestioned. Then a second circle, a realm of negotiated love, commitments freely chosen. And then a circle for colleagues, acquaintances; the cheerful gray-haired lady who rang up my groceries back in Chicago. Until the circle finally widened to embrace a nation or a race, or a particular moral course, and the commitments were no longer tied to a face of a name but were actually commitments I’d made to myself.
p. 666 The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power–and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.
But that’s not all the law is. The law is also memory; the law records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.