[18 January 2009]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Look out, Lincoln!
A certain eloquent, lanky Illinoisan, who has already bodysnatched the 16th president’s style, tone and “team of rivals” thinking, is now chasing Honest Abe’s greatest cultural accomplishment after ending slavery and preserving the union.
That is, the august status of having the most books written about him.
Unless you’re a Lincoln nut, you may not know that our 16th president, whose forthcoming birth bicentennial is producing another tsunami of tomes, is in a rarefied class as a subject of books.
According to historian Gerald Prokopowicz, a worldwide catalogue search in 2002 found 14,985 books on Lincoln, making him the fourth-most popular subject of biographies and studies in world history after Jesus, Shakespeare and the Virgin Mary.
Yet, as the 44th president prepares to take office Tuesday, it’s clear that Barack Obama is going to give “16” a run for his money.
Lincoln may have a long lead, but remember - “44” is only 47. And bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble are already breaking out separate tables and sections to accommodate the flow.
In a nod to Obama’s own emphasis on inclusiveness, publishers are targeting every category from kids on up.
There’s “Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope” (S&S) by Nikki Grimes, aimed at ages 5-10. Sample page:
“They used to call him Barry.
His family stretched
from Kansas to Kenya,
his mama, white as whipped cream,
his daddy black as ink.”
If that sounds too sophisticated for your young’un, you can drop back to “Barack” by Jonah White, aimed at ages 4-7 (Collins). Lead-in: “It began in Hawaii one moonlit night, the night Barack was born.” (That should answer the dead-enders who insist the new president wasn’t born in the United States.)
Arguably the next step up the scale is not official “Young Adult” material, but what appeals to the young idealist in all of us: those attempts to capitalize on Obama’s rock-star allure by any media outfit with photos in stock and some entrepreneurial oomph.
We speak, of course, of the oversized commemorative photo book.
Here offerings include “Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs” by Deborah Willis and Washington Post reporter Kevin Merida (Amistad); “President Obama: The Path to the White House” by Time Magazine (Time); “The American Journey of Barack Obama by The Editors of Life” (Little Brown); “Yes, We Can!” by Scout Tufankjian (Powerhouse); and the still available “Obama: The Essential Guide to the Democratic Nominee” (Chicago Tribune/Triumph Books).
Text in these books conveys conventional wisdom, the stuff you’ve been reading in, well, the Washington Post, Life and Time. The Time book actually reprints articles from the magazine.
Everyone should probably grab one as a memento, but for sheer fun, the best of the commemoratives is “President Obama/Election 2008: A Collection of Newspaper Front Pages Selected by the Poynter Institute” (Andrews McMeel). It gathers dull headlines (“Historic Victory”), witty ones (the Tulsa World’s “Yes, He Did”), and lovingly local riffs (The Jakarta Post’s “Barry’s Done It!”)
Readers, though, usually turn to books for deeper insights than journalism offers. What the oncoming wave of serious books about Obama should really do is solve puzzles about him.
Part of the answer would be political. Is he a middle-of-the-roader who runs like a leftist but governs and appoints as a centrist? A leftist who runs and appoints as a centrist, but governs from the left?
The other part would be personal. Isn’t there more to his 47 years than he put in his wonderful “Dreams for My Father”? Did he have a girlfriend before Michelle? What did he argue for in his academic papers at Harvard?
Mainstream media have been criticized for celebratory coverage of Obama’s rise that has left such questions largely unanswered. That standpoint will be rammed home later this month in Bernard Goldberg’s still-embargoed “A Slobbering Love Affair” (Regnery), which may add to yet another genre of Obama books: attacks on the president-elect.
Those include “The Case Against Barack Obama” by David Freddoso (Regnery) and “The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality” (Threshold) by Jerome Corsi, both of which drew harsh reviews.
Yet supporters and readers with no ax to grind against Obama may eagerly take to books that dig deeper into his life than the media have. For sure, an avalanche is developing.
Writers who have already announced books on Obama include New Yorker editor David Remnick; New Yorker Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza; Newsweek senior correspondent Richard Wolffe; Washington journalists Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson; and New York magazine political columnist John Heilemann and Time magazine political analyst Mark Halperin, working as a team. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe also has said he’ll write a book, tentatively titled “The Audacity to Win.”
Will any conduct the high-quality biographical research that produced such classic books as those of Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson? With the exception of Remnick (who demonstrated a taste for biography in his book on Muhammad Ali), it’s not clear that any will dig hard into Obama’s life rather than focus on the 2008 campaign and after.
Among types of Obama books currently on the market, none is a definitive, classic biography.
One sort is the policy book by an intellectual hoping to influence the new president, such as “Obama’s Challenge” by Robert Kuttner (Chelsea Green).
Another is the journalistic effort to explain his rise, such as Gwen Ifill’s “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (Doubleday).
A third is packaged fodder for political junkies, such as “How Barack Obama Won: A State-by-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election” by Chuck Todd and Sheldon Gawiser, both of NBC News (Vintage).
A fourth is the solid but arguably too-early bio of the future president, the strongest example of which is Chicago journalist David Mendell’s “Obama: From Promise to Power” (Amistad).
So it may take until the 2012 presidential campaign to see if proliferating trade books will solve remaining questions about our new president.
If they don’t, or if all that print material intimidates you in this YouTube age, be assured that the Obama sections in bookstores also offer a different kind of Obama puzzle.
The jigsaw type.
Try the Boston Globe’s 550-piece “Historic Victory Puzzle.” Or the 500-piece “Change” puzzle by Barbara Miller. Or the 1,000-piece “Yes, We Can” Commemorative Barack Obama Puzzle.
All three have one clear advantage over books such as those 15,000-plus that still haven’t figured out Lincoln.
When you finish, the puzzle’s solved.