I visited an acquaintance of mine about two weeks ago. He happens to own a used bookstore. Of course I have far too many books now, but there’s always room for another good find.
We talked for a bit about kids and college and politics and eventually we moved, naturally, into booktalk, which, naturally, led us to his groaning shelves in search of a book.
The search didn’t produce the book we were looking for, but after my acquaintance walked away to take a phone call, my wondering eye spied a thick, black book spine cover with the title of A Thousand Days printed across it.
A Thousand Days won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for biography and, from all that I’d read about it, was one of the best books written about President Kennedy the man, the candidate, the leader, and the President. Certainly a book written by an Administration insider and admirer will reflect the writer’s biases, for which, I think it’s fair to say that Schlesinger was well aware of as a professional historian.
But this particular memoir/biography, I think, has become particularly attractive given the times we find ourselves in. I think there’s a need to be reading books about Presidents that, while not perfect, brought high ideals, intelligence, grace, dignity, and visionary leadership to the highest office in the land.
And so, in the quiet of the early morning (0630 when I took picture above), I began a 1000 day journey.
The study of history is an edifying pursuit, but it’s also time-consuming. We all…okay, well most of us I should say, like to be edified, but most of us don’t have the time…or the attention span. And so it’s always nice when some great scribe lays down the lessons he or she has learned from a lifetime of personal study.
Such is the case with professor H.W. Brands. He has written a number of history books, but he’s mostly known for his superb biographies. Biography, in my view, is the highest of art forms under the category of History. As I’ve said before, I think you get more wisdom and inspiration from the study of people’s lives than almost any other literature.
I pulled Brand’s bio of FDR from my bookshelf the other day (I haven’t read it yet), and that led me to his internet homepage where I found these aphoristic observations from Brands’s life of studying “humanity’s crooked path.”
Found these two at a local used bookstore today. The Metaphysical Club won the Pulitzer Prize the year it was released. Menand is also an accomplished essayist. I’ve always been fascinated by pragmatism since reading William James’s work. Metaphysical Club elaborates elegantly on the origins of this American philosophy.
I studied management and leadership at undergraduate (and graduate) school and one of the books I reviewed as part of a course was T. E. Lawrence’s 7 Pillars of Wisdom. That was a very interesting book. I remember thinking I needed to find a good biography on Lawrence. So finally, many years later, I’ve finally picked one up for cheap. Great finds!
In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them. — Mark Twain
I have a small study in my house. Well, it would be better to say I have a room in my house with books on shelves, books in boxes, and books stacked on a French Avignon desk that I don’t use. We moved into this house over a decade ago and I told my wife then, patient and tolerant woman that she is, that “You go ahead and decorate and finish all the other rooms first and then we’ll do my study last.” Well, as with various other projects around the house, I never followed through. I had grandiose ideas about my new study and what it would mean when we moved into our new house. “I would,” as Michael Dirda quipped “of course, wear a velvet jacket at my desk, take breakfast in the conservatory, and in the late afternoon go for long walks on graveled paths.” I know, that’s pathetic.
Anyway, the truth is I’m either sitting at the kitchen table or in a chair in our bedroom when I write (or read) at home. Oh, and I don’t have any graveled paths to walk on either. My study, or “bookroom” really, is just storage space for me to wander through (or trip), while searching for a book or just casually picking up books and dipping into them to get a taste of the author’s prose or find some inspiration. My bookroom ramblings remind me of a fine quote by Churchill, that nicely captures my state of mind:
“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.” — Winston Churchill
Recently I decided to organize my books a little better. Instead of strictly by author, I organized them into large categories like history, philosophy, economics, etc, etc. A novel idea, I know. Of course this process, as I sifted through the boxes and shelves, forced me to see (by stack size, and word count) exactly what category had won my interests and taxed our budget over the years. In my case the winner, by sheer numbers and thickness of books, is biography. I’ve definitely read a lot of them over the decades.
Maybe it’s partially in the blood. My mother loves biographies and has a small collection herself. For me, I don’t know exactly when biography became my favorite genre, but I can remember two books that probably had the biggest influence on me early on in my reading life. Many years ago I read James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. Yes, I read the entire unabridged 1402 pages of the Oxford World Classic edition. I’m a slow reader, so believe me that took a while! But it was a great reading experience. Boswell’s biography was full of wit—which Johnson excelled at—and wisdom and fascinating details about 18th century English culture and art. It’s definitely a classic. I came away totally fascinated by Johnson’s unique life and powerfully quick, creative, and intelligent mind.
Boswell’s biography led me to Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson. This was an absolutely absorbing book and a captivating literary experience. I had no idea, at that point in my reading life, that biography could be so compelling, instructive, and psychologically insightful. I completed Bate’s biography of Johnson feeling my perspective on life and the dynamics of human potential had changed. It was, properly speaking, literature that inspired a reverence for the power of literature to alter how we see the world. The book, by the way, won all 3 of the major American literary prizes, something that rarely happens.
The next biggest book category in my study appeared to be classical history, followed by literature (mostly essay collections), general history, leadership, psychology, civil war, and economics. And of course I have a large collection of what can be called general non-fiction. Books by, say, Malcolm Gladwell would fall into the category. My collection of novels is not what it use to be. I actually don’t read that many novels anymore I’m sad to admit. My time is limited, as you can tell by the rather spare postings on this blog (hoping to change that), and so I need to prioritize my reading to make room for writing.
If there is anything I’m reminded of from reorganizing my bookroom, it’s that the books we collect don’t just represent what we like to read, but also through what discipline (or category) we enjoy discovery. For me, I’m attracted to biography, the story of people’s lives. It’s this form of literature that’s had the biggest influence in shaping how I’ve learned about the world. “I esteem biography,” Samuel Johnson said, “as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.” I for one have always loved this quote and, as my bookshelves can attest, taken it to heart.
A colleague at work gave me these 4 autographed biographies of American presidents.
These books arrived at my office after a meeting where business and the pleasure of reading seem to go naturally together. My colleague had obviously discovered my love of books and thought she’d indulge it. We didn’t talk about any particular genre so I was pleasantly surprised to be given 4 biographies, my favorite kind of reading.
The great English lexicographer and essayist, Samuel Johnson, once said: “I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.” By studying the lives of other people, specifically those who’ve risen to great renown, we can learn a lot about the workings of human excellence and human vice. We can put to use what we learn from these biographies in our own lives.
Humanities departments have long argued that one of the best ways to improve yourself, both morally and culturally, is to study the arts and literature; more specifically novels and other works of the imagination. By experiencing the world imaginatively through the lives of others we’re able to sympathize, to “move with” them, as our protagonists experience the world, its triumphs, trials, and tribulations. It’s through this sympathetic process that we expand our own moral and cultural horizons. We understand them and ourselves better. This has the potential to create new intellectual and moral connections we did not have before. We grow.
In the modern age biography has replaced the novel in this respect. Just notice how the fiction section of the Barnes and Noble Book Shop is shrinking and the biography section is expanding. Most modern biographers write their story with the skill of a good novelists, and with biography you’re dealing with facts, with characters from history, not fiction. I think there’s a greater demand these days for the literature of fact, because it touches our need for what P.G. Wodehouse once said about good conversation being “a feast of reason and a flow of soul.”