An Intensity Of Observation

by Conor Friedersdorf

Nicholas Lemann sure can write:

It’s worth listening to the audiobook version of Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, because not so long ago Obama had both the time and the inclination to spend many hours voicing the recording himself. His regular speaking voice is by now in all our heads, but in the spoken version of the book we also get something that has had to be put away from public display: Obama’s uncanny gift for mimicry. Again and again he will encounter a character and deliver the material that appears within quotation marks on the printed page in the character’s voice. He can do men and women, old and young, foreign accents and street slang.

To pull this off requires not just vocal ability but an intensity of observation of other peoplea quality of attention, of absorptionso fierce it’s as if one’s life depended on it. And there is a sense, in the case of Obama, in which his life did depend on it, sociologically and psychologically. He had to imagine his way into the center of American society from a very unusual point on the periphery, to invent an identity for himself that felt comfortable, to find a way to love parents whom one would more naturally resent for having been so often absent.

That's from a TNR review of George W. Bush's memoir. He observes that "in Decision Points, everybody but Bush exists, characterologically, as a figure in the drama of Bush, not as an independent figure under observation."