Barack Obama’s New Book, Reviewed as a Large Object

Against a gray curtain backdrop, Barack Obama's new book lies on its side in the sunlight, next to a can of red kidney beans.
(Beans for scale.) Tom Scocca

The Barack Obama book was really heavy, right out of the envelope. I’m going to read it, probably all of it, so this isn’t any sort of dismissal of the insides. I’ll consume that part and decide what I think about it later. I’m always a little troubled or confounded when people peel off immediate reviews of these sorts of books. Back in 2004, Michiko Kakutani did the big Bill Clinton one, My Life, basically overnight, after the New York Times got its hands on a copy ahead of the release date; she wrote that it was “eye-crossingly dull” and “undermined by self-indulgence,” which I don’t really doubt it was, but on her way to that judgment she must have had to pound through its 957 pages more or less without pausing, which seemed unkind to everyone involved. It certainly can’t have been the relationship anyone had envisioned between a book of that size and its reader.

The page numbers in the Obama book, A Promised Land, go up to 751. I haven’t really looked inside it beyond that. I just keep thinking about how hefty it is. Amazon lists it at 2.4 pounds. It feels good in the grasp, at the end of your arm. It also seems like it might get heavy in the hands, if you were holding it open and reading it. But it is an authoritative physical object. The paper is very, very nice, the way expensive hotel sheets are nice. The cut fore edge, opposite the spine, is silky smooth. I spent a few weeks inspecting shipments of new books as a temp job once. You looked for uneven stitching or stray globs of glue, and you flipped through the corner of the book and watched to see if the numbers jumped around, because that would tell you if the pages were uneven. Obama’s page numbers are steady. Who doesn’t want to have something this solid and definitive, to mark that span from 2008 to 2016? So many more things ought to feel that way but have turned out not to.

The dust jacket is cool to the touch and not at all shiny. There are no blurbs; who could possibly blurb Obama, at this point? The back cover is truly absorbing. In a photograph by Dan Winters, the 44th president stands inside the White House by a window, reduced to a silhouette by the daylight of the capital city outside. Well, not reduced: Part of the point here is that anyone would recognize this faceless figure, even if this wasn’t his own book. His arms appear to be folded across his chest. Only the nearly invisible pale arc of his shirt collar above his suit jacket confirms he has his back turned to you—rather, to Winters, to the room inside the executive mansion. If you don’t focus too hard, you can make him flip around to face the other way. The lighting brings out the tassels and decorative edging on the otherwise dark curtains. To Obama’s left, in the distance, rippled by the window glass and slightly fractured out of alignment between one pane and the next, is the Washington Monument. Despite all the symmetry, an Edward Hopper mood creeps in.

On the front, he is full-lit, large and close up, in silvery black-and-white. The background is blank gray, just dark enough to show the debossed white capital letters of the title across the top to advantage. His face is in three-quarter view, smiling. At what? The question drains away the potential appeal from the image: He is smiling, looking down and off to his left, because the photographer is having him smile, for his book cover portrait. The photographer is Pari Dukovic, who also photographed Obama for a very long New Yorker profile, by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick. In that profile, Remnick wrote, “From long experience, Obama has learned what works for him in pictures: a broad, toothy smile. A millisecond after the flash, the sash releases, the smile drops, a curtain falling.” I don’t think I ever read that profile, but the piece was so long that the magazine’s website published a whole separate article about the taking of the photographs to illustrate it, quoting Remnick from the main article, and I found it while I was looking up Dukovic to confirm that the photo was specifically staged for the book cover.

In that same Google, I also found a story from the Daily Mail in which another photographer, Anna Wilding, supposedly was threatening legal action (this supposition does not seem to have traveled much beyond the Daily Mail, which is not especially reliable) because she believed that the cover image of Obama in black-and-white three-quarter view facing left was a ripoff of a photo she took of Obama in black-and-white three-quarter view facing right. Legal threat or no, Wilding does seem to sincerely feel this way about it, which is too bad, partly because it seems fairly ridiculous to claim to own an exclusive angle and color treatment on one of the most photographed faces in the world, but mostly because her picture was much better than the cover photo, and it’s a shame anyone would think they look alike.

In Wilding’s photo, Obama’s smile seems natural and friendly; his eyes are crinkled in what looks like sincere, thoughtful amusement. The portrait on the front of A Promised Land, by contrast, registers as some carefully calculated midpoint between the impression of warmth and the impression of gravitas. I respond to Obama’s charisma, in general, but here on the book cover, the picture leaves me uncharmed, uneasily picking at the details. He wears a suit jacket and no tie, with his top two shirt buttons undone, but the shirt is pressed and, more importantly, there is an American flag pin in his lapel, dead level, between the CK and the A at the ends of his first and last names. All other detail and decoration may be stripped away, yet the pin stays. I’ll read what he has to say, but that little pin doesn’t give me much hope.