Book Review: ‘Permanent Record’ by Edward Snowden

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Published January 29, 2020
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"Permanent Record" is an autobiography by Edward Snowden, a famous American whistleblower. Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers

One could anticipate former American spy turned whistleblower Edward Snowden to have certain qualities: intelligence, bravery and craftiness. But nothing about Snowden’s persona would indicate that he’d be a great storyteller, until now.

“Permanent Record,” Snowden’s autobiography and debut book, tells his life story in a way that is as compelling as it is relatable. I went into reading this viewing him as a hero, but Snowden doesn’t portray himself as one. He writes as a person, as flawed as anyone else, trying his best to let his values guide him.

From the first few sentences of the book’s preface, Snowden shows himself to be witty and down-to-earth in his writing style.

“My name is Edward Joseph Snowden,” Snowden said. “I used to work for the government, but now I work for the public. It took me nearly three decades to realize that there was a distinction and when I did, it got me into a bit of trouble at the office.”

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Edward Snowden’s book has something for all readers to enjoy.
Photo courtesy of @Snowden

The book is divided into three sections that make up distinct parts of Snowden’s journey. The first section is about his youth, setting the foundation for the type of person he would become and the values that would guide him.

The second section focuses on his career as a spy while working for the CIA and NSA. During this time he lived in Geneva and Tokyo, as he explored the disillusionment and ethical dilemmas that would lead him to uproot his life for the greater good.

The third and final section is about Snowden the whistleblower. He explains here how he was able to provide classified government documents to journalists without getting caught and escape arrest against all odds.

My favorite section of the book was the first. Snowden’s childhood was unique, as he grew up in a town where every fourth person worked at the local government base. He also came from a family with a history of military service dating back to the American Revolution. Snowden had an early interest in technology at a time when computers were just starting to be available to average citizens.

Despite the many aspects that set Snowden’s youth apart from most people’s, he is still a person. It’s what shines through as he writes about not having many friends, falling behind in school and being emotionally thrown off by his parents’ divorce. I imagine anyone who has experienced their adolescent years in full would have no trouble understanding Snowden as he writes about his confusion, anguish and need to find who he is in all the chaos.

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“Permanent Record” is an autobiography by Edward Snowden, a famous American whistleblower.
Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers

In the following two sections, Snowden tells the stories that make up most of his life. One is the story readers likely came for: his transformation from a spy serving the U.S. government to a whistleblower who would go onto be vilified and exiled for choosing to serve the good of humanity. It is as thrilling as any fictional spy novel.

Intertwined with the spy story is a love story. The romance between Edward Snowden and his significant other, Lindsay Mills, is so intense and persevering at times that I had to remind myself that these are real people who I was reading about.

What’s so impressive about “Permanent Record” is that as I read this autobiography, I felt like I was walking right alongside the person I held in such high regard. His modesty and authenticity puts him on the same level as I or any other reader. Despite this being a nonfiction text, the book offers something for everyone in the mixing of romance, action, humor and emotion.

While there’s no shortage of great lines throughout the piece, there was one in fact that truly stuck with me and summed up my feelings on this story.

“Reality, I learned, is nearly always messier and less flattering than we might want it to be, but in some strange way often richer than the myths.”

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