This evening I finished Barack Obama’s 1995 autobiographical work, Dreams From My Father. I read it ‘diagonally’ once before, but this time I read it properly, attentively, cover-to-cover. It is a truly remarkable work. In the first place, it is a literary achievement. To call it ‘faction’ would be to demean the book, but it is not straightforward autobiography. Obama conflates characters and invents dialogue to get his story – and it’s quite a story – across. At times, he writes with beautiful lyricism and brings an almost poetic eye to his descriptions, whether it’s the ‘barracuda-like silence of police cars’ on Chicago’s South Side or a herd of goats ‘like lichen’ against the Kenyan earth. In the second place, this is a moving account of the quest for identity (later, identities) of an African American, born in Hawai, brought up in Indonesia and with a remarkable family diaspora descended from African patriarchs. As such, I would warmly recommend it to, say, a young Turk in Dusseldorf or a young Pakistani in Bradford. It is relevant to all who are uncertain about whether and where they belong and why. Obama struggled and went through bad times and he writes with a very special candour (surely unique?) for a man who was on the eve of a glittering political career that would take him to the Presidency. In the third place, the central account of Obama’s time as a community worker on the Altgeld Gardens housing project on Chicago’s South Side is a sort of text-book description of an activist’s coming-of-age. He unflinchingly describes a process whereby upwardly mobile black families buy properties in lower middle-class white neighbourhoods. A tipping point comes and the whites start to move out and then property prices go into a tailspin and what was a reasonably prosperous suburban community becomes a slum. (Many European cities have known similar experiences.) Obama writes honestly about the difficulty of re-creating a sense of community in such areas, as he does about his own subsequent ‘escape’ to Harvard Law School. Last but not least, surely, from Obama’s point of view, he has set out as full a history of his family as it is probably possible to provide, both for himself and his children, but also for all of the aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters he so affectionally describes in the book. (He ends by proudly recording that his brother has converted to devout Islamism.) I remain convinced that Obama is a very special President. His commitment to social welfare reminds me of Clement Atlee. He was dealt a bad hand (Attlee’s great post-war administration similarly had to contend with an effectively bankrupt state) but he has already achieved more, in terms of his flagship priority of health care, than the Clintons (assuming his policy survives). Time will tell whether his compromise with the Republicans on tax was astute, though he is clearly now playing the long game. If you read this book you will see that, although Obama may not always have been destined for great things, his constant questioning of self increasingly set him aside from the ordinary.