THAT BARACK Obama is the most interesting public figure in the world today will be reinforced tomorrow week when, on Tuesday, January 20th, he is inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States of America, writes Peter Murtagh.

The event in Washington will be bulging with expectation and emotion. Rarely have so many people - in America and across the world - invested so much hope in a single man, expectation fed by the nature of his election campaign.

The emotion will come in bucketloads as Obama, the first black man to hold the office of US president, takes the oath. As he does so, one hand will be resting on a small velvet-covered, Oxford University Press Bible, the same Bible held by Abraham Lincoln when he was sworn in as the 16th US president on March 4th, 1861.

Lincoln, of course, went on to win a civil war to abolish slavery only to be assassinated. He remains one of the most revered American presidents, perhaps the most admired.

Like Obama, Lincoln was an Illinois-based politician before becoming president and he is just one of many historical figures, both American and more ancient, who inspire the president-elect. But what are the more familial influences that have made Barack Obama the man he is today?

Barack Obama's extraordinary story is told in an early autobiography,

Dreams From My Father, which is being serialised all this week in The Irish Times. The book is a masterpiece: the writing is elegant and vivid, his use of language fresh and exciting.

But it is the facts of the Obama story itself that fascinate: a rounded, balanced and calm leader has emerged from the most unpromising of beginnings.

Born to a white mother from Kansas and a black father, a visiting student from Kenya, he was exposed early to the ugly realities of racism but did not become embittered. His parents separated when he was a toddler, his mother subsequently marrying a man from Indonesia, where he lived and went to school until he was 10.

Back in America, he was raised in Hawaii by his grandparents, his much loved Gramps and Toot; his mother, who died prematurely from cancer, instilled in him a social conscience. As a young man, he campaigned among the poorest of Chicago's poor and subsequently went to Harvard University where he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. And throughout this story, we follow Barack Obama's journey in search of himself: who am I, who was my father, who are my Kenyan half brothers and sisters?

Today's extract is the start of his journey seeking answers to those questions - the young Barack Obama's awakening sense of himself and his colour.