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Reading Obama

Written By: daveski on January 20, 2009 1 Comment

(Photo above linked to NYT article mentioned below)

The second most popular story in the New York Times today, the day of the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, is about language and reading: “From Books, New President Found Voice“, writes Michiko Kakutani.

The article draws parallels between Abraham Lincoln, who Obama says he reads regularly for inspiration, and Obama himself–not, like many of the news articles out there do, because of the fact that they were both legislators from the state of Illinois who were criticized for their lack of experience at the time they became president, but (also) because of the great power they saw in the written word, and their mastery at using it in both speech in writing.

It’s not hard to believe after being immersed in American politics and media culture for decades, that language is a transparent conduit for meaning, that translation between languages and between ideological worldviews is becoming a matter of just ‘pointing-and-clicking’ (try out Google Translate if you haven’t already).

But Kakutani tells us that our president-to-be (3 hours and counting!) has a much more nuanced view of language as a complex and complexifying medium, that itself has the power to transform and become realities both political and personal. Language and the activity of reading, she writes, have both endeared him to the American public and “shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.”

To be sure, reading more does not seem to have made the world more transparent for Obama (not the case for another recent president, the article argues). But reading fiction, poetry and major historical, religious, and political works (Shakespeare, Emerson, Herman Melville, Abraham Lincoln’s collected writings, Marilynne Robinson‘s “Gilead”, the Bible are mentioned in one paragraph) have imbued Obama “with a tragic sense of history and a sense of the ambiguities of the human condition”–a sense of the complexities underlying life in the 21st century.

Importantly, language is not just about ‘seeing things’ in a complex way; language, the article says, is (still) a primary means of action in the world. Kakutani reminds us of what we already know intuitively, but may not know how: Obama uses language “to goad Americans to complete the unfinished work of the founders, and to galvanize a nation reeling from hard times with a new vision of reconciliation and hope.”

All this makes me wonder if, after all the dust settles from today’s hype and fanfare, we might expect not only a different kind of presidency from Obama, but a different kind of awareness of the power of language among the American public at large. Imagine, if at the interviews and press conferences that are constantly flashing across TV screens and news webpages, we were to hear news reporters begin to ask most urgently, the first order of business:

“Mr. President, what are you reading today?”

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One Response to “Reading Obama”

  1. Youki on: 21 January 2009 at 11:30 am

    This is great, too often when we read about language in politics it’s about the darker side of language: how it manipulates, deceives, or obfuscates with terms like clean coal, tax relief, or the Clear Skies Act. I’d definitely love to see “Mr. President, what are you reading today?” being asked.

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