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'Bridge' Tells Obama's Story, Just As We Remember It

In many ways, David Remnick's new book, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, is very much like its subject: Even-handed, eloquent, beautifully packaged.

Certainly, it's promising.

As a journalist, Remnick is a heavyweight. In 1994, he won the Pulitzer for his book on the Soviet Union. Now, he's at the helm of The New Yorker.

And so, we have a top editor-in-chief writing about the commander in chief. How could this not be extraordinary?

The problem is, Remnick has set himself a nearly impossible task. The Bridge attempts "the most complete account yet" of the most famous man on the planet -- a man scrutinized daily by the media, whose life is still a work in progress, and whose biography is known to most of us already.

Thanks to Obama's own words, the public has been familiarized with much of the territory covered in The Bridge. His Kansan-Kenyon background. His Hawaiian-Indonesian childhood. His personal struggles with racial identity. His absent father. We've known about his drug use, his career missteps, his naivete. And we know, too, that Obama has "stood on the shoulders of giants" -- that his election is the historic culmination of a legacy that began with slave ships, marched in Selma, and preached on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

For all his skill, Remnick is largely stuck. His biography is well-researched and articulated, but contains nothing earth-shattering. How can it?

Without resorting to tabloid journalism, the best Remnick can do is elaborate on the facts, delve into the footnotes, expand upon the broader historical contexts. And here's where The Bridge is strongest. You learn about the Kenyan airlift that brought Obama's father to study in the U.S. You hear Jimi Hendrix blasting in Obama's freshman dorm. You see his restlessness, confidence and ambition laid bare. You go door to door with him as he learns to finesse Chicago's South Side. You meet his roommates, patrons, mentors.

In a particularly sobering section, Remnick notes that 12 American presidents owned slaves, eight while in office; he resurrects the era viscerally with slaves' own accounts. At its best, The Bridge enriches Obama's life story with historical gravitas and fine detailing.

But there's another problem. Obama's rise has been so recent that it's hardly history yet. Most of the people reading The Bridge will have witnessed it in real time. The section of the book that recounts the 2008 election seems to restate the obvious. And his life and presidency are still unfolding. In trying to bring the book up to the minute, Remnick risks obsolescence. His epilogue, written in January, is already out of date.

Yet oddly, The Bridge may actually be ahead of its time. The events in it are so well-known right now that its scholarship may resonate better in 20 years, after Obama's presidency has truly become history. Future generations who haven't just lived through what it documents may find this book riveting. The Bridge, in short, may be like young wine -- requiring time for its value and quality to emerge in full force. Or, it may be like Obama's Nobel Peace Prize -- a massive achievement that has been issued, perhaps, prematurely.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Jane Gilman, whose reviews and commentaries can be heard regularly on All Things Considered, is a journalist, fiction writer and bestselling author of three nonfiction books: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a SmartMouth Goddess and, most recently, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, a memoir about a naive and disastrous trek Gilman made through Communist China in 1986.