I 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.