A Tale of Two Book Reviews

May 4th, 2017

This week, the New York Times and the Washington Post both reviewed, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, authored by Pitt LawProf David J. Garrow.

Michiko Kakutani of the Times did not like the book, for, among other reasons because it was too long:

“Rising Star,” the voluminous 1,460-page biography of Barack Obama by David J. Garrow, is a dreary slog of a read: a bloated, tedious and — given its highly intemperate epilogue — ill-considered book that is in desperate need of editing, and way more exhausting than exhaustive.

Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post liked the book, and in particular, appreciated the book’s depth. In a strange quirk of language, he mirrored Kakutani’s barb, to the opposite effect. Rather than being “way more exhausting than exhaustive,” Lozada found it was ““Rising Star” is exhaustive, but only occasionally exhausting.

Kakutani wrote the book was not well-edited, and included far too many irrelevant details:

While the Chicago chapter sheds valuable light on Obama’s connection with black residents and his developing sense of vocation, many of the other sections that try to chronicle his day-to-day life feel extraneous and absurdly long-winded, as if Garrow wanted to include every last scrap of information he’d unearthed.

Lozada wrote that the author employed a wide-view lens at times, and at other times, zoomed in. (This is something I strived for in my books on Obamacare).

Garrow zooms his lens out far, for instance when he recounts the evisceration of Chicago’s steel industry in the early 1980s, providing useful context for Obama’s subsequent work. And he goes deliciously small-bore, too, delving into the culture of the Illinois statehouse, where poker was intense and infidelity was rampant. “

It’s remarkable that two book reviewers can read the same ~1,500 book, and reach totally opposite conclusions.

As an aside, Lozada includes this discussion of Obama’s time at HLS:

At Harvard, the Obama the world has come to know took clearer form. In his late 20s now and slightly older than most classmates, he had a compulsion to orate in class and summarize other people’s arguments for them. “In law school the only thing I would have voted for Obama to do would have been to shut up,” one student told Garrow. Classmates created a Obamanometer, ranking “how pretentious someone’s remarks are in class.”

Such complaints aside, he was generally admired, including by his professors, one of whom wrote a final exam question around comments Obama had made in class. And his elevation to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review, the first time for an African American, signaled the respect the school’s elite students had for him — even if some liberal classmates later regretted their choice, finding Obama too conciliatory toward conservatives in their midst. Garrow re-creates the drama around the election, with Law Review colleagues debating the candidates’ legal acumen and leadership skills, as well as the possible history-making aspect of the selection. It is an unexpectedly riveting part of the book. The black editors on the staff began “crying and running and hugging” when the final choice was made — and with the national news coverage that followed, Obama’s star was on the rise.

The book also includes copies of Obama’s teaching evaluations.