Barack Obama on Reading and Writing

Barack Obama, in an interview with the New York Times’ chief book critic Michiko Kakutani:

I was hermetic — it really is true. I had one plate, one towel, and I’d buy clothes from thrift shops. And I was very intense, and sort of humorless. But it reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.

Writing — by which, of course, I mean really good writing — forces both the writer and the reader to slow down and focus on what is being conveyed and in what context. That requires dexterity, but it can also lead both parties to create connections between ideas in ways that otherwise could never happen. The same thing happens in speeches; for example, Martin Luther King Jr., accepting the Nobel Peace Prize:

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

In one paragraph, King manages to point out that the award he has been given is both in recognition of his ability so far — to peacefully yet forcefully fight for equality — and also alludes to the prescience of the award’s shortcomings; the need for recognizing that we are not equal is not over, even today, and the fight for equality will not always be without violence. Yet, through great effort and empathy, we can approach these ideals.