He invited authors and historians to the White House and had already published a best-selling memoir. That didn’t make writing his latest book, “A Promised Land,” any less of a grind.
Barack Obama’s new memoir “A Promised Land” is unlike any other presidential autobiography from the past — or, likely, future. Yes, it provides a historical account of his time in office and explicates the policy objectives of his administration, from health care to economic recovery to climate change.
But the volume is also an introspective self-portrait, set down in the same fluent, fleet-footed prose that made his 1995 book “Dreams From My Father” such a haunting family memoir. And much like the way that earlier book turned the story of its author’s coming-of-age into an expansive meditation on race and identity, so “A Promised Land” uses his improbable journey — from outsider to the White House and the first two years of his presidency — as a prism by which to explore some of the dynamics of change and renewal that have informed two and a half centuries of American history.
It attests to Mr. Obama’s own storytelling powers and to his belief that, in these divided times, “storytelling and literature are more important than ever,” adding that “we need to explain to each other who we are and where we’re going.”
In a phone conversation last week (a kind of bookend to an interview I did with himduring his last week in the White House in January 2017), Mr. Obama spoke about the experience of writing his new book and the formative role that reading has played, since his teenage years, in shaping his thinking, his views on politics and history, and his own writing.
He discussed authors he’s admired and learned from, the process of finding his own voice as a writer, and the role that storytelling can play as a tool of radical empathy to remind people of what they have in common — the shared dreams, frustrations and losses of daily life that exist beneath the political divisions.Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: BooksJan. 16, 2017.
Mr. Obama speaks slowly and thoughtfully but with the conversational ease that distinguishes his books, moving freely between the personal and the political, the anecdotal and the philosophical. Whether he’s talking about literature, recent political events or policies implemented by his administration, his observations, like his prose, are animated by an ability to connect social, cultural and historical dots, and a gift — honed during his years as a community organizer and professor of constitutional law — for lending complex ideas immediacy and context.