Friday, March 6, 2009

Grounds for impeachment

A few weeks back I crossed a major item off my to-do list: I backed up my computer, including my mp3s, on an external hard drive. My previous laptop died pretty suddenly, taking with it all sorts of files I don't need but was sorry to lose. And that was before I'd started using iTunes. So, as the present one reaches middle-age, I decided it was high time I prepared for the worst.

In the process I also expanded my music collection a bit, because registering the hard drive with the manufacturer scored me some free Emusic downloads. Sweet! The deal included one audiobook. Now, I've never been an audiobook person -- I like my books on paper. (Although I can imagine I'd adapt if I spent a lot of time in a car.) But this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out something I've wanted to read but haven't been motivated enough to buy: Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father. During the election I was so busy trying to tune out all the nonsense about how Obama was a foreign-born secret Muslim that I didn't really learn many actual, true details about his background. I had heard, though, that this book was good, and furthermore that he actually wrote it himself, so I was curious. It seemed like a good audiobook choice, because I wasn't expecting it to be such a literary masterpiece that it would be diminished in the transition from written to spoken word. And because, by the same token, I probably wouldn't mind that it was "abridged." And finally, and maybe most important, because it was read by Obama himself. With most politicians that would be a liability, but Obama -- what can I say? The man has a very nice voice.

One of the reasons I like books-on-paper is that you can find out when they were published, what edition you're reading, etc. Since I didn't have a copyright page, or even a box, to consult, I had no idea when exactly this book was written or when the audio version (read by Obama himself) was recorded. I just jumped in, and when I hit "play," the first track turned out to be a preface, for an updated edition, explaining the circumstances under which Obama wrote the book. In his signature syncopated rhythm, Obama explains that he was receiving a lot of media attention, because "I was the first African-American president..." He paused just long enough for me to do a double-take: When did he have time to record this?! -- before he finished the thought: "...of the Harvard Law Review." Oh.

As it turns out, he wrote the book just after graduating from law school, and recorded the audio version while he was a senator. It's obvious he didn't spend a lot of time preparing for his recording session: he reads with his usual bumpy rhythms, but often he begins a sentence without seeming to know where it will end. It's hard to explain in writing, but you probably know what I mean -- regular churchgoers will be familiar with this phenomenon as demonstrated by the lector-who-hasn't-prepared. (It's particularly noticeable when someone is struggling through a cold read of one of St. Paul's epic sentences.) Sometimes, as I listen, I get distracted thinking about how writing-for-reading differs from writing-for-speaking, and how inflection can be used to indicate punctuation when you're reading from a book. That's another problem with audiobooks, at least for me: my mind wanders and I forget I'm supposed to pay attention. With real books you can at least go back to the top of the page without too much hassle!

As I've noted, Mr. Obama is a particularly visible president, at least compared to his predecessor. He's always giving a speech about something -- and in these worrisome times, people are actually interested enough to listen. So we're all getting used to hearing his voice every time we turn on the television or radio. And it's a little surreal for me to hear that same voice in my ear when I'm cooking, or riding a bus down Riverside Drive... Except, instead of delivering a frank but confident assessment of the economy or foreign policy, he's telling me about his boyhood in Indonesia and his pet monkey.

I hadn't yet gotten to Obama's high-school years, and his friendship with "Ray," when the Boston Phoenix posted these audio snippets from Dreams from My Father (which I learned about via Wonkette). In context (as I learned when I finally listened long enough), the conversations between "Barry" and "Ray" lead to a sensitive, candid and truly edifying discussion of how experiences of racism and questions about racial identity figured into Obama's adolescence. But out of context, the Ray dialogue generates some hilarious soundbites. Which brings us to the Phoenix's brilliant idea to edit and post some clips. The framing device is kind of lame. The audio editing is sometimes sloppy (which makes the clips less funny). But, in the end, what you have is a downloadable mp3 of the 44th president saying, for example, "Sure you can have my number, baby." (Not to mention other hilarious, less family-friendly things.) And that's something I think we can all appreciate.

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