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“Becoming” elevates Michelle Obama to the pantheon of great American women

Former first lady Michelle Obama signing copies of her book "Becoming" last November at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park. The book again tops the hardcover nonfiction bestsellers list.

Former first lady Michelle Obama signing copies of her book "Becoming" last November at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park. The book again tops the hardcover nonfiction bestsellers list. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

News is supposed to be new; the expectation is even hidden in the word: new-s.

So I’m three months late.

But anything can be news if you don’t know it.

And back in November when Michelle Obama’s autobiography, “Becoming,” was published I didn’t know what I know now.

To be honest, I barely paid attention to the book. I didn’t think much of Michelle Obama. Not that I held her in low regard, per se. Certainly nowhere near as low as the contempt expressed by right wing haters who decried every aspect of the First Lady, from her politics to her arms.

I just didn’t think much about her. Not while her husband was a senator, when she was an offstage presence, grumbling about his political career, nagging him about smoking. Not while he was president, when she created scandals by wearing sleeveless dresses and urging kids to exercise. Not when her book came out. I clicked my tongue at her United Center book launch, hosted by Oprah. Must be nice.

But it wasn’t as if I were going to read her book. Michelle Obama was not the sort of person I wanted to cozy up with. She seemed, as she herself put it in her book, a “pissed-off harpy.”

How do I know she wrote that? Because I read the book, of course. Why? I had to catch a plane. The cab was coming in 15 minutes. I needed a new audio book. Onto Audible to find something.

“Becoming” is a delightful book. From the low-key opening sentence — “When I was a kid, my aspirations were simple. I wanted a dog” —through the White House and after. There isn’t a wrong note, and I looked, hard. It’s worth reading just to meet the loving, extended Robinson household.

The woman can write. Her first kiss is “splishy.” Time “loops and leaps.”

The more familiar White House years did sag. Speeches and policies and aides. I came to relish the relief her girls brought. During the 2008 campaign Malia keeps asking, “Is he president now? … Okay, now is he president?” like a kid in the back of a car whining, “Are we there yet?”

I’d always felt guilty mentioning the somersault of fate that landed Barack Obama in the Senate: Peter Fitzgerald quitting, opponents like Jack Ryan and Blair Hull imploding. “A series of lucky twists,” is how Michelle puts it. And that’s before his Republican opponent turns out to be Alan Keyes.

“Becoming” is perfect for our perilous national moment, reminding us of when our country had a thoughtful, decent man as president. Donald Trump emerges like a monster in a horror movie, glimpsed first in flashes far off, then rearing up behind us. Obama casts him as the latest in a line of bullies she’s battled.

“Bullies were scared people hiding inside scary people,” she writes.

Have you ever heard it put so well?

She offers no pat solutions but wonders “where the bottom might be.” As should we all.

“Becoming” made me think of Boswell’s “Life of Johnson.” Without Boswell, Samuel Johnson is a footnote, the obscure author of an 18th century dictionary.

Thanks to Boswell, he lives forever.

“Becoming” adds Michelle Obama to the pantheon of great American women. Particularly the audiobook, which she reads herself, a brave move since — forgive me, Lord — Michelle Obama has a speech impediment. She pronounces “strange” shtrange. This is not a criticism; given her perfectionist streak, it underscores a key message of the book: be yourself. Being yourself isn’t all that redemptive if you’re perfect or must seem perfect. For her to present this flaw to the world, unexplained and unapologetic, is both a triumph and endearing.

Without “Becoming,” Michelle Obama would be a Hall of First Ladies waxwork, notable for the color of her skin but otherwise pallid beside the glamor of Jackie Kennedy or the drama of Dolley Madison.

With it, she lives forever. I sincerely believe that. “Becoming” takes a truth she states with typical clarity, “It’s hard to hate up close,” and demonstrates it with humanity and grace, making a deliberately misunderstood figure for too many into a person both sympathetic and real. I can’t recommend “Becoming” enough, and the less you feel the book is right for you, the more you might benefit from reading it. I did.