In college, I did a really terrible job of reading for pleasure. After poring over tons of books and articles for class, reading more books didn’t seem like an appetizing way to spend my free time. I read plenty of magazine and news articles, but read very little in the way of actual, honest-to-God books. I did alright during summers, but after graduation, I decided it was time to step up my game, book-wise.
Now, books are an escape, not a chore. While I’m trying to make up for lost time and read as many as I can, I don’t want everything to go in one ear (eye?) and out the other, so I’m writing little “debriefs” for everything I read this year.
I’ve finished two books so far in 2013 (though the vast majority of the first was read in 2012), and here’s what they taught me.
Book One: Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
I blogged a little about this book as I was reading it, and now that I’m through, I wish I was taking some class that required me to write a whole research paper on it. As terrible of a student as this will make me sound, I took more notes on this book than I did on a lot of books I read in college. Reading it without an assignment hanging over me, I was able to take it at my own pace and soak it in as a whole, rather than thinking about bits and pieces that might somehow fit into a paper.
It is a tremendous work: 754 dense pages about Abraham Lincoln, his four primary rivals in the race for the 1860 Republican nomination for president, his cabinet once he did become president, and how he worked with and maneuvered around all those people to lead the United States through the Civil War.
Throughout the book, I found three elements of Lincoln’s personality and character most fascinating: Lincoln as storyteller, Lincoln as a PR man and people manager, and Lincoln as a man obsessed with the way in which he was perceived. (I suppose those are the main points of that book report I’m not required to write.)
First, Lincoln as storyteller: I wrote about this a couple months ago, when I had just started the book, but if you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, whose screenplay is based on Team of Rivals, you probably laughed out loud at the story Lincoln tells about Ethan Allen seeing a portrait of George Washington hung in an outhouse. I know that story doesn’t make sense out of context for people who have not seen the film or read the book, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ timing and delivery of the story provided me with one of my favorite moments in any movie. Team of Rivals is full of references to Lincoln’s gift for storytelling, molded when he was a boy as he listened to his father tell stories to travelers and pioneers who spent the night in their Kentucky home.
Then, Lincoln as a PR master. Honestly, the man was a public relations genius, especially when it came to the internal PR he had to conduct in order to keep all his cabinet members, friends, constituents and military leaders happy.
In my eyes, though, his greatest PR gift was his ability gauge public sentiment, and wait until it was on his side before making proclamations or taking certain actions.
“Lincoln understood that the greatest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is to educate public opinion,” Goodwin wrote. She then shared what might be my favorite Lincoln quote from the entire book: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions (p. 206).” (The bold and Italic emphasis is mine. That quote completely blows my mind because it holds true in every era, and so perfectly embodies Lincoln’s strategy for waiting until the public was willing to accept something before he acted on it.)
This sensitivity to public sentiment was never clearer than when Lincoln was preparing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He waited until the North was ready to fight for the abolishment of slavery – not just for the preservation of the Union (p. 502). The same went for his proposition to let blacks enlist; he waited until public opinion was strong enough on his side, and likened the situation to a man waiting for pears to ripen. “A man watches his pear-tree, day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at length falls into his lap (p. 502)!” He would act when the public was ready to willingly support his decisions, and not a moment sooner, avoiding personal embarrassment, and, worse, the failure of key measures like the Emancipation Proclamation that helped facilitate the war’s end.
Finally, Lincoln and perception. As a young man, Lincoln took very little comfort in the idea of heaven or an afterlife as something to live for; in his eyes, this life was all he had, and he was obsessed with doing something great that would cause him to be remembered and celebrated in future generations. “Like the ancient Greeks,” Goodwin wrote, “Lincoln seemed to believe that ‘ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him'” (p. 100 of Team of Rivals, quoting William G. Thalmann’s The Odyssey: An Epic of Return).
After he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he recalled suffering depression two decades earlier, and remembered thinking at the time that the only thing keeping him from wanting to die was knowing he had done nothing “to make any human being remember that he had lived (p. 501).” With the passage of the Proclamation, he believed his “fondest hopes [eternal remembrance in history] will be realized (p. 501).”
I have dozens of other Post-it Notes and highlighted paragraphs littering my copy of Team of Rivals, but those were the three elements of the book and Lincoln’s life that stuck to me. If you have any interest in American history, or just want to read a thoughtful, well-researched book, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Book Two: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
It seems like this book was on everyone’s “Best of 2011” list, so I’m behind the curve, but I did read most of this during Christmas break of 2011 before abandoning it once classes picked up again. I must have read more than I remember, because I was probably three-quarters of the way through before I started hitting material I hadn’t already seen.
I don’t think I liked it as much as I thought I would (or should) – I started out loving it, hated it (or at least found it a little tiresome) in the late-middle, but felt satisfied with the ending. Maybe that makes no sense, but hey, I’m not a professional book reviewer.
Even if I didn’t like what some of the characters did at times (a large chunk of it just wore me out, because all five main characters more or less hit rock bottom at the same time; turn the page, another character makes a bad decision and starts some long journey back to reality), I loved the way they were developed. Each main character had a rich backstory that was described upfront and used as the foundation for his or her actions throughout the book.
There were a lot of moving parts that all came together in the end, which was what I loved most about this book. My copy included a “Reading Group Guide” in the back, which featured a Q&A with the author. He likened weaving five stories together and leading them to a satisfying conclusion to completing “a humongous math problem.” Borrowing that analogy, finishing The Art of Fielding was like solving a complicated algebra problem, then checking your answer in the back of the book to find you actually did it right.
On top of it all, Chad Harbach is a gifted writer. The book is smooth. His characters talk and think like normal people talk and think, and he describes their actions in a way that allows you to picture how they are moving. If I ever write a debut novel someday, I’d hope it’s as well-written as Chad Harbach’s.
Book Three of 2013 is Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman. Most of what I know about Ben Bradlee is shaped by Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in All the President’s Men, but I’m about a third of the way through this book, and already my perspective has shifted dramatically. Bradlee seems to be the personality of all personalities, and it’s a pleasure getting to know him. More to come.