“50 Ways to Help Obama” and “Inside Obama’s Brain”: Some Books Have Expiration Dates: Book Review
February 17, 2010
I interviewed the author of Inside Obama’s Brain, Sasha Abramsky, the week his book came out, and I looked forward to reading both of these positive, Obama-centric books. But, alas, when I did finally read them, in January of 2010, I found, to my dismay, that they had outgrown their shelf lives.
What to say about books that have expired? The authors cannot be blamed. The publishing companies can, insofar as they succumbed to Obama fever in commissioning these books, but not for publishing bad books. Both of these titles, especially Mr. Abramsky’s book, have much to recommend them, but the full effect that I am sure the authors desired had a shelf life. Books that celebrate a moment always do. And moments, especially political and historical ones, change so quickly. A book that requires a certain mood from the reader in order to be fully enjoyed will only be fully enjoyed for a short period of time.
50 Ways You Can Help Obama Change America:
This book is a “box of chocolates,” to borrow a phrase from Forrest Gump. The “50 ways” run the gamut of political participation, from emailing your Congressman to running for Congress yourself, with everything in between covered as well.
The authors, Michael Huttner and Jason Salzman, divide their list into sensible categories, and they reference many, many wonderful web sites and organizations that can be valuable to a concerned citizen. It’s just that a “do-it-now” kind of book feels wrong when the endorsement on the cover is from the now-dead Senator Edward M. Kennedy. I don’t think he was meant to be dead when I read this book, just as I don’t think the authors’ advice to “Clarify your own position on health-care reform, and join an organization that promotes your preferred approach” was meant to sound as “been there, done that” as it did to me.
While 50 Ways contains very useful information and is a perfect book for teens looking for avenues of political involvement, it is already something of a “dollar store” book. It exists in a place that no longer exists in real life: the “Yes, We Did!” period following the 2008 election.
Inside Obama’s Brain:
Sasha Abramsky is a writer whose skills I greatly admire, and writing a book that delves into the personality traits of Barack Obama to explain his brilliant rise in American history must have been a dream project for him. Still, this book may read better twenty years from now than it does in 2010. Right now, it feels dated, although in a different sense than does 50 Ways.
Inside Obama’s Brain discusses such things as the president’s self-assuredness, his devotion to coalition-building, and his calm demeanor. These traits are often mentioned in the context of particular situations, but the reader of this book today will be unconsciously inserting today’s situations into the character analysis. For example, Mr. Abramsky talks about Obama “blending idealism and pragmatism.” Reading that phrase right now, depending on which side of the partisan fence you are on, you will probably feel that one of those qualities in getting lost in the blend. And that feeling will color your experience of the book.
Character traits are good to know about, but, in real time, it is action that makes character. And Inside Obama’s Brain exists, well, inside Obama’s brain via Abramsky. When the reader intertwines that space with the real world of Obama’s actions, the traits often fall short of their intended impressiveness. Mr. Abramsky told me he hoped this book would “re-energize people” about Obama, and it did that for me, a little, but it also made me realize how far away the days of campaign glory were, and how deeply the days of cold, hard reality have set in.
Some books have an expiration date. You can still read them after that date has passed, but the flavor won’t be as good as it could have been if you’d read them at the peak of freshness. Lesson learned.