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Monday, February 18, 2008

History lessons

I've been so caught up with the charms of the P******y thing (hoping to forestall further comments from the enthusiastic management) that once I finished Life of Pi (what is there to say about a lifeboat with a 450-lb Bengal tiger aboard that hasn't already been said?) I just grabbed whatever was available from the library display. I didn't stop to consider the timeliness factor in picking 1776 (David McCullough's history of that fateful year) and Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin's account of Lincoln's presidency).

I had read John Adams when it first appeared several years ago, and knew of McCullough's wonderful ability to bring history to life. And Goodwin's memoir Wait Til Next Year is one of my all-time favorite books. So my expectations were high.

These books aren't just timely because it happens to be President's Day. They're timely in that they use perfectly chosen detail to remind us and help us understand exactly why these two presidents were truly great. And what they were up against. We think times are tough? Just imagine the stresses of living in 1776, or in 1860. (Or read/listen to the books if you're fuzzy about the particulars.) I found it impossible, as I listened, not to think carefully about the personal qualities and strength of character one might hope to find in a presidential candidate today.

4 Comments:

Blogger SuperMom said...

I think that in an age of instant news where anything that ever happens is widely dispersed two seconds after it happens, it will be next to impossible to have leaders who will be known for their strength of character. If Adams and/or Lincoln had had the unforgiving microscope of today's media/internet/blogosphere focused on them, I wonder what their legacies would have been?

And hey, aren't we related to Adams?! I think we are...

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am reading John Adams by David McCullough now (I'm actually almost finished with it), and I had the exact same feeling about the timeliness of the book and what they were up against. It was definitely not easy back then, and here I am complaining about my 45 minute commute to work (by train with coffee and iPod in hand!). It certainly puts things in perspective. I think I might move on to 1776 next, unless you would recommend that I read Team of Rivals before moving on to 1776 - H

11:23 AM  
Blogger sixty-five said...

1776 basically covers just that one year and all the battles of the Revolutionary War, starting in Boston (Dorchester) where things look promising, then going through a year where things just keep looking worse and worse (Long Island, Kips Bay, Harlem Heights, etc) and ending with crossing the Delaware where things finally turned around. Because it was hard to visualize all the battle tactics from the audio, I ordered from the library the illustrated version (maps etc) so I could at least look it all over in retrospect. As he does in JA, McCullough humanizes Washington as well as all the various generals. Even King George III who only shows up briefly in the beginning, is given a surprisingly well-rounded and sympathetic treatment.

Team of Rivals has the Civil War as a background since its focus is the years of Lincoln's presidency, but it's much more about people and politics. It starts with Lincoln's nomination at the (very first) Republican convention in Chicago in 1860 where he beats out three much more well-known, accomplished and seasoned "rivals" (Seward, Chase, Bates). Once he is elected in November, he immediately gives them all high-ranking cabinet positions. They all make important contributions throughout the presidency, but Goodwin shows how brilliant Lincoln was at keeping the upper hand at all times, while using the rivals' best talents and attributes. And how they, especially Seward, came to respect Lincoln's quiet, good-humored, thoughtful brilliance. The book, by the way, is 955 pages. I didn't realize til now that the P***away is an abridgement. Maybe a good thing! It doesn't seem as if you're missing anything.

Both of these outstanding historians have the ability to do the most exhaustive primary research and then pull it all together in a fresh and riveting way, full of surprising details. (Did L really use the top of his hat as a "desk" while writing the G address on the train? Nobody is sure about that!).

12:44 PM  
Blogger sixty-five said...

The title you requested is ready for pickup.
Author: McCullough, David G.
Title: 1776 : the illustrated edition: excerpts from the acclaimed history, with letter....

Please contact your library if you have any questions.

Oh goody!

12:52 PM  

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