Book Review: 'The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama' by David Remnick David Remnick has a nearly impossible task in his new biography of Barack Obama: writing "the most complete account yet" of the most famous man on the planet. The well-written and well-researched book may be ahead of its time; the events in it are so familiar right now that its scholarship may resonate better in 20 years.


Book Reviews

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


New Yorker editor David Remnick has written several acclaimed non-fiction books, including a biography of Muhammad Ali. Now, he's written about the life of President Barack Obama in a new book called "The Bridge." Author Susan Jane Gilman has this review.

SUSAN JANE GILMAN: 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.

The problem is Remnick has taken on 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. For all his skill, Remnick is largely boxed in. 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 United States. 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. His mentors, roommates, predecessors, we meet them all.

In a particularly sobering section, Remnick notes that 12 American presidents owned slaves, eight while in office. He resurrects this with slaves' own accounts. At its best, "The Bridge" enriches Obama's life story with background 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 his ascent 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 us up to the minute, Remnick risks obsolescence. His epilogue, just written in January, is already out of date.

Yet oddly, "The Bridge" may 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 the book documents may find it riveting.

"The Bridge," in short, may be like young wine: requiring time for its full value and quality to emerge. Or, it may be like Obama's Nobel Peace Prize: a massive achievement that may have been issued prematurely.

BLOCK: Susan Jane Gilman is the author of "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven." You can find more book reviews and recommendations at our Web site,

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.