Monday, May 10, 2010

David Remnick's "The Bridge"

Have you noticed that when certain books are first reviewed you don't get the full sense of how good they are until later, sometimes much later? I am guessing this is true of David Remnick's new book about Barack Obama called "The Bridge." The bridge in the title here means many things but my favorite is the quote from the legendary SNCC activist and long-time Congressman from Georgia - John Lewis - who was one of participants in the Selma march for voting rights back in 1965: "Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma."

What makes Remnick's book so great are 3 old-fashioned things: Good writing, meticulous research, and skillfully providing a sturdy historical context for the main events in Obama's story. With respect to that third point, for instance, Remnick does not believe you can make sense of Obama's rise to power without understanding in some depth the Civil Rights Movement. Similarly, since you can't really understand how groundbreaking it was for Obama to be elected President of the Harvard Law Review without an appreciation for Harvard's preemimence as a law school, Remnick goes back to the late 19th century to describe Christopher Columbus Langdell's innovations at Harvard Law with the case study method. Even more revealingly, you can't really appreciate Rush Limbaugh's outrageously racist claim that Obama didn't write his own autobiography without acknowledging that a long line of distinguished African American autobiographies have been subjected to the same racist attack: that they couldn't possibly have been written by their reputed authors alone. One of my favorite context-setting scenes in the book is Remnick's exploration of the history of community organizing, a profession much maligned by Republicans during the 2008 presidential campaign, but one with an important and impressive Chicago background, thanks to the indispensable contributions of the great organizer Saul Alinsky.

Perhaps I have gone on too long with these examples, but my point is that Mr. Remnick's book will last because it has refused to oversimplify a long and complex story and because it insists on giving history its due.

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