Thursday, July 26, 2012

On American Presidents: A Journey through Books

Cover of Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
It's been far too long since I've written here. Job changes, the fun of summer, and a debilitating obsession with The West Wing, Mad Men, and Modern Family have kept me from my blog. But I'm now returning to begin progress toward a new goal--a presidential reading project. I plan to read one highly-acclaimed biography of every American president, in order. I will use my blog to post at least once in the course of reading each book to share a little-known fact, reflect on an important finding, or, in some cases, express surprise (and maybe a little disgust) at the heroism we posthumously impose on our most deeply flawed American leaders.

I was inspired to undertake this project after reading Candice Millard's absolutely excellent book Destiny of the Republic about the short-lived Garfield administration, and, more interesting, the tragic saga of his death. It is meticulously researched yet reads like a thriller. It turns out that Garfield was a fierce advocate for equal rights, yet his all-important presidential legacy is nil and his broader life story has been muted by his truncated time in the White House. From my reading of Millard's book, Garfield promised to be a far more admirable, if not influential, leader than the author of the Emancipation Proclamation himself. I feel robbed, having not heard this story til now. I have decided it's time to get educated.

I also feel my formal education--K through college--failed to really ignite a passion for history. As James Loewen has written in Lies My Teacher Told Me, many history teachers fail to appreciate the power of stories to teach history. Joshua Foer explained well in his brilliant book Moonwalking with Einstein how the memory requires context and imagination to absorb facts. The more memorable the context, the more easily we can recall the fact. (Foer says it's much easier to remember the word "baker" [the profession] than the last name Baker, because "baker" has a memorable context--the smell of bread, the taste of a fresh bagel, the starched aprons and white hats.) A list of presidents, important dates, or war battles does far less for long-term understanding than an engaging story which touches each of those data points and imbues them with meaning and emotion. I feel the historical names, dates, and places I was taught (to little effect) have been missing memorable linkages for a long time. I hope this project helps me understand our nation's history, reflect on the injustices that were committed to make the country, and recall names and dates--and the stories that make them important--more easily.

Wish me luck! My first two books are Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner and John Adams by David McCullough.