Day 508: Conversations with Myself

Cover for Conversations with MyselfI was deeply disappointed with Conversations with Myself, which reads as if it was thrown together by people who don’t know much about publishing or the interests of readers. It was assembled from notes, diary extracts, letters, and interviews, probably without much interaction with the man himself. (Although it is solely credited to Mandela, it is fairly obvious from some of the notes that it was put together by committee.)

Context is one of the biggest problems with the book, that and organization. Perhaps some attempt was made to order the excerpts by subject or time. It is hard to tell. But except for short notes about where the information came from, no effort is made to explain the context of the excerpts. It is as if the editors of the book are assuming that its readers are intimately familiar with the events in Mandela’s life. He makes a journey, for example, and writes about it in his diary, but there is no introduction about the journey’s purpose.

One of the first things I encountered on beginning to read (besides three typos on the first two pages) was a note that an entry was from a letter to a particular person. The back of the book includes an alphabetical list with descriptions of some of the people mentioned. Naturally, I wanted to understand who Mandela was writing to. But the name was not listed.

Even if it had been listed, the information there is written like an abbreviated biographical dictionary or business résumé—in partial sentences, listing the person’s work positions, accomplishments, imprisonments, with lots of acronyms. When I am reading a book like this, I want to know the person’s relationship to Mandela. I want to read a blurb that gives me some sense of the person. I want to know if someone was Mandela’s friend for many years or a trusted colleague. As an extreme example, sandwiched between Winnie Mandela’s employment history and memberships in various organizations is the bald statement “Married to Nelson Mandela, 1958-96 (separated 1992).” That’s it for Winnie.

Let’s not forget the acronyms and organizations. Between my early attempts to look up names and acronyms in the back and the little information gleaned from doing so, I soon gave up referring to that list. As an example of the type of information offered, the African National Congress is explained in terms of its founding date, the dates it was banned, and its current status. But why was it formed? What are its goals? What has it achieved? Of course, I have heard of it for years, but I really don’t know much about it. Again, context.

This book could have been effective and interesting with more attempts to organize the material, write more informative introductions, and rework the appendix. Instead, it is simply confusing, with a few gems of thoughtful prose. I wish I had read The Long Walk to Freedom instead.

14 thoughts on “Day 508: Conversations with Myself

    • whatmeread April 23, 2014 / 1:18 pm

      I know. A friend of mine told me that Long Walk also reads like it was written by a committee.

      • Carolyn O April 23, 2014 / 1:55 pm

        Oh no! Well, presumably someone will come along and put together something worthy of the man.

      • whatmeread April 23, 2014 / 1:57 pm

        I got the idea that someone was carefully controlling his papers, etc. But maybe there is a good bio out already. I haven’t looked. Read this for a book club.

      • Carolyn O April 23, 2014 / 2:01 pm

        A real life bookclub? I’ve always wanted to be in one.

      • whatmeread April 23, 2014 / 2:32 pm

        Yes, with real people meeting in a cafe and discussing the book. Of course, keeping them discussing the book is one of our challenges! They can be fun, although I find myself sometimes reading things I’m not that fond of. In our club, we take turns picking the book instead of deciding by vote. We decided that it lends more variability to our choice. Unfortunately, it lends more variability to our choice. 😉

  1. Naomi April 23, 2014 / 2:29 pm

    This is too bad. Mandela deserves to have a good book written about him.

    • whatmeread April 23, 2014 / 2:30 pm

      Yes, I think so. There might be one, but I haven’t researched it.

  2. Cecilia April 24, 2014 / 10:11 am

    Ugh, what a shame! It’s such a disservice to Mandela. I hope you find a better book as well.

  3. Alina (literaryvittles) April 24, 2014 / 11:34 am

    Really a shame. And that’s disappointing to hear that “Long Walk to Freedom” has that garbled committee element to it as well. Someday, someone will write an excellent, well-researched, and well-organized biography of Nelson Mandela. In fact, I’m surprised one hasn’t appeared already, given his passing in December.

    • whatmeread April 24, 2014 / 11:40 am

      I might be misremembering which, book about Mandela it was, though. One of my book club members said something about it when we were discussing the book, and now I’m not sure if that was the one. I have to say that I felt like this one was simply profiting from the Mandela legacy.

      • Alina (literaryvittles) April 24, 2014 / 11:43 am

        Yup. Definitely. That always happens after someone prominent dies – a fully-formed biography magically appears in a matter of days, it sometimes seems.

      • whatmeread April 24, 2014 / 11:47 am

        I think this was published before he died, but I’m guessing that there is a group of people that is in charge of his papers or something like that.

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