Barack Obama Posts

David J. Garrow “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama”

Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David J. Garrow spent nearly nine years researching and writing Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. Garrow interviewed more than a 1000 people for the biography of Obama. It is a voluminous 1400 pages with nearly 300 pages of footnotes and bibliography.

Rising Star is true to its name as in excrutiating detail it documents minutely facts about Obama’s life , mostly before he became president of USA. It is a biography that is probably going to be referred to for many years to come for the extensive research put in but the veracity of its authencity will forever be questioned, as pointed out by the Guardian and the New York Times book reviews. Both the articles criticise Garrow for relying far too much on Obama’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Miyoshi Jager for information.

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”( 18 Dec 2014,  )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.”

Garrow won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).  But since the 1980s till today there has been a tectonic shift in how biographies are written. A good example is the beautifully written biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Unfortunately it seems Garrow with this particular biography of Obama has been unable to evolve from the stodgy 1980s style of writing biographies.  In Rising Star Garrow fails to do precisely what Richard Holmes delineated — “step back, step down, step inside”. Hence it is easier to read the book in morsels rather than from beginning to end. Rising Star is outdated and dull for modern readers who prefer zippy, well-written narratives that are nuanced with analysis. Though in an interview in Longreads Garrow says it is the  “self-creation” or living a life of
“re-invention” of an individual that fascinates him the most. Undoubetedly it is this mission that comes through clearly except making it very tedious to read.

The nine years spent by Garrow researching this book more or less coincide with the two terms Obama spent at the White House. The book itself was published within months of Obama demiting office indicating a slight haste to reach the market quickly. But given the wealth of information garnered Garrow would have done well if he had spent a little longer editing Rising Star and gaining an objective perspective on his subject. He probably would have had a timeless classic.

Despite it being a dreary read Rising Star will prove to be a seminal book in time to come. It will be the go-to biography of Obama for its meticulous documentation particularly the endnotes and extensive bibliography.

David J. Garrow Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.1460 Rs 799

28 June 2017

Alec Ross “The Industries of the Future”

The day history is made in USA with Hillary Clinton becoming the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee and endorsed by outgoing President of the USA, Barack Obama it is worth looking at Alec Ross’s book The Industries of the Future. Alec Ross served as Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation while she was Secretary of State. Before working for Clinton, Alec Ross had worked as the convenor for technology and media policy on the Obama campaign that beat her in the 2008 presidential primary.

Alec Ross’s The Industries of the Future is a fascinating account of how much innovation is taking place in the world,Alec Ross in geographical corners that are mostly hidden from media view. He discusses robotics, genomics, cyber security, digital technology and finance, blockchains and bitcoins, etc. This is the kind of book that will be a reference document now to understand innovations and will have a long shelflife for its historical value in contextualising and explaining innovations that will define twenty-first century. What comes across strongly is that Alex Ross does not view innovations as disruptive but with wide-eyed wonder at the business potential and positive socio-economic impact these measures will have in future. Today it may seem as if these innovations are nudging just the limits of that is plausible yet many of these practices/ predictions are slowly coming true in one’s lifetime. Much like the automatic sliding doors of Gene Roddenberry’s stories of the 1960s were considered to be innovative are now very common in modern life.

Here is a wonderful interview with Alex Ross by Jinoy Jose P in the Hindu Businessline : http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/the-future-world/article8544279.ece . It was published on 1 May 2016.

Alex Ross’s book is truly stupendous. Hilary Clinton will do well to have him return to her team. Meanwhile read it. Buy it.

Alex Ross Industries of the Future Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 310 Rs 599

10 June 2016