I try to look at things positively. I really do. Which is why it pains me to swallow my creed and admit defeat. Bill Clinton’s post presidential memoir My Life is an absolute fucking chore to get through. Exhaustive, bloated, and just plain witless, this book is for the die hard and obsessive followers of the polarizing politician only (I feel as if calling any politician polarizing is redundant).
To be fair though, most political memoirs are guilty of the above. It’s the symptom of the modern politician. They’re just boring people. You’d be hard pressed to find a personality of the like of Theodore Roosevelt (that guy knew how to write). The gold standard of memoirs, though, is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Joyful, witty, enlightening, and above all succinct, it’s the standard to which we measure political, as well as all, autobiographies. Franklin is both entertaining and inspiring, recounting an unimaginable life through homespun prose and humorous anecdotes. Unfortunately, most politicians fail in attempting to weave their own inspiring tale. Maybe we should blame their ghost writers.
But while politicians generally fail at writing a memorable book, they generally succeed at creating a unifying theme to their life and career. For example, George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points focuses on his discipline that he developed from overcoming alcoholism. Say what you want about that guy, but he knew how to tell an inspiring tale. And more importantly, Bush recounted a focused narrative of his career. Sure his book is defensive about his controversial decisions, but at least it has a driving theme that creates a unified biography. The point is, you should be able to read a political memoir and get an overall sense of a politician’s life and career. Which is what makes Bill Clinton’s memoir so maddeningly devoid of this most basic characteristic.
To be honest, for a biography that is over a thousand pages long– and if you listen to the audiobook like me, 42 CDs–you’d expect there to be some grand message or theme, or at the very least insight to the man’s boneheaded mistakes. But no. My Life reads like an encyclopedia, listing off dates, facts, names, once in a while a lesson gleaned from a life experience, but an actual thematic core? Good luck trying to come up with one.
What’s clear, if anything is from this behemoth, is that Clinton kept a detailed diary. He recounts events down to the day they happened, key conversations that would be impossible to remember, and names and more names. The problem is, reading a diary sucks. At their worst they’re rambling, incohesive, and full of useless information. Which is exactly what this book is like. For example, while describing his childhood, Clinton goes on tangents, giving biographies of friends and family, even going so far to give the exact location of where they live. He might have given addresses at one point. The problem is, I don’t remember. I kept finding myself lost in these tangents, forgetting where exactly we were supposed to be at in Clinton’s life. Even worse is when later on, during his political years, he’ll jump ahead in time without any indicator, exacerbating the condition. It can only be described as a mess.
This is not to say the book is without merits. If you happen to be insane enough to care about the daily business of a president, this book is for you. If you want to know the name of every person he’s ever encountered, this book is for you. If you want a great doorstop, this book is most definitely for you. As for me, the only reason I trudged through this is because one of the items on my bucket list is to read every presidential memoir.
How bad is it, you ask? While listening to the book being narrated, I would just drift as the words droned on. It got to the point that I would have the audiobook playing but started reading something else while I tuned in and out of the narration. I imagine the same would have happened if I would have read the physical book. You know that point where you’re reading words but you have no idea what you actually read. But I’ll be honest, this book would have taken me months to get through if I wasn’t for the audiobook. I guess that’s something to boast about if one finds themselves in the company of audiobook snobs. As for Clinton’s debacle, I can only sigh with relief as I remind myself, I got through it.