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Only 907 pages to go ...
Bill Clinton's 'My Life'
by Stephen Holmes

y Life," Bill Clinton's sprawling autobiography, is a staggering 957 pages (not including prologue and acknowledgments) and has sat comfortably atop the New York Times best-sellers list since its release in June.

This is an impressive feat considering it's summer and the public is usually more interested in "beach reads" than in a bloated book about a (formerly) bloated (former) politician. Partly because I am aware of my limitations (it would take six months for me to finish this tome) and partly because it is summer, I am reviewing the first 50 pages.

The primary problem with most autobiographies is that the author is not a writer and tends to think that every minute event that has happened to them since birth is worthy of inclusion. The secondary problem is when the subject is larger than life and the editor in charge of taming the beast (both book and author) doesn't quite delete enough.

During the book's first 50 pages there are huge sections that meander pointlessly, detailing every shade of every blade of grass. Does anyone really care about the exact layout of President Clinton's boyhood home in Hot Springs, Ark.? These remembrances often read like a fifth-grader's report on what he did over his summer vacation.

In other sections, subjects fly by so rapidly that I began to wonder if Clinton suffered from A.D.D. Within the space of two pages, Clinton recollects on using an outhouse, being butted by a ram, the two domestics his family employed and how they were people of quality, attending a Catholic school and yet another new home into which he and his family moved. This was done as a stream of consciousness with no seeming connection.

Clinton writes about his Uncle Buddy's ability to spin great stories. "Well into his 80s, Buddy could tell amazing stories ... Lots of people would come by his house and sit on his porch for a visit." The former president doesn't realize that sitting around and telling stories is much different than writing memoirs. His written storytelling ability is not quite as developed as his Uncle Buddy's oral storytelling.

What must have been a devastating event in Clinton's life is discussed and resolved in just two paragraphs. One night while arguing with Clinton's mother, Virginia, his stepfather (Roger Clinton, who he called Daddy) shot at her. "The bullet went into the wall between where she and I were standing. I was stunned and so scared. I had never heard a shot fired before, much less seen one."

Such a traumatic experience warrants a little more explanation. Did this event sway his views on guns and gun control later in life? Shape his attitudes on relationships?

Even though the events of that evening were breezed through, more detail is given to Clinton's love of Elvis Presley. He goes on for several paragraphs about Presley's movies and appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. He culminates his Elvis lovefest with a startling admission: "And I confess: I still love Elvis." I hope that in future pages he confesses his love for blow jobs and cigars.

To be fair, the chapters I read were not without merit. When Clinton gives a history of Arkansas or writes about others such as his mother or his grandfather, the book is lifted from its routine regurgitation of events. Though he glossed over the gun incident, it is apparent that Clinton loved and respected his stepfather. Daddy's drinking eventually destroyed the family but Clinton writes of him glowingly – preferring to concentrate on his good (and sober) qualities.

Clinton seems to find his center when he writes about Billy Graham – specifically, Rev. Graham's 1958 crusade in Little Rock, Ark. The pride Clinton felt when Graham refused to bend to segregationists' demand for restricted admission (whites only) pops off the page. What could have come off as sappy actually works because of Clinton's passion for the subject. Recalling how "hundreds of blacks and whites came down the stadium [War Memorial Stadium] aisles together, stood together, and prayed together," Clinton drops all pretenses he demonstrated earlier in the book. The reader shares the writer's excitement.

Ultimately, I probably will read the 907 remaining pages (okay, I may skip some) because of its intermittent glimpses of exuberance. The book actually seems interesting once Clinton stops writing his laundry lists of minutia.

Read more from Stephen in our archives.

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