I’ve decided to break out my discussion of my presidential biography project into its own series instead of writing long comments in the monthly book post. I’ll still update briefly what I’ve read each month in that post and this particular post isn’t going to be about any one of the books. Rather, I wanted to talk about the project itself, my motivations for undertaking it, what I’ve learned to date, and where I see it going.
For pretty much everyone, 2020 was a terrible year. After 10 years of relentless traveling to North Dakota for work, I was suddenly home bound, fearful of even keeping my job, and anxious about the disease and how it would impact our country. And, let’s be clear, I was mortified by the actions of the White House and I despaired that the Orange One would be re-elected. By Christmas, the election was over (well, for the reality based world, it was), but the pandemic was raging out of control. My company shuts down between Christmas and New Year’s Day every year, so that's a time that I usually sit back and take stock of things or do projects like painting, or both. Usually, it also provides me with a respite from traveling, but in 2020, it was just more of the same.
Even though I was continuing to stay home and go nowhere, I had about 11 days off to reflect on the state of things. I had been thinking all year, retire, retire, I need to retire. Of course, I’m too young to retire (or more accurately, my daughter is too young for me to retire). I reconciled myself to eight more years of work (maybe not, but I’m willing to keep going) and I came to peace with that. I also thought that I needed to quit thinking about the outrages of the day and try to develop some perspective about things. In other words, I wanted to know, were things always this crazy? I didn’t think so, but there’s been periods of unrest in the US in my lifetime and some fairly, from my point of view, disheartening things that have happened politically. At the same time, there have been some real areas where there’s been progress.
It was over Christmas that I first heard the idea that we shouldn’t teach our children to love America or hate America, but rather to understand America. I’ve always had an interest in knowing more about the US Presidency, so I decided to use that lens to learn about American history. I decided to read one book about each American president. How to start such a project? Well, I did what 21st Century Americans do. I grabbed my computer and searched for “best presidential biographies”. Lo and behold, there was a website out there, https://bestpresidentialbios.com/, dedicated to just this topic! Who would have guessed? (Actually, I would have guessed. I know that there’s a website dedicated to different ways to tie your shoes, so this had to be there.)
A few days after Christmas, I bought my first book, Washington, A Life, by Ron Chernow on Kindle and I started to read it. On New Year’s Eve, I made my list of books, totaling some 30,000 pages and I was off. And then, January 6th happened. I was torn away from this project due to the horror I felt when the Capitol was overrun by thugs who were intent on disrupting what was a simple formality in service of a Big Lie. My anxiety and disgust went up and the project languished. But, toward the end of the month, I picked it back up and started again. By February 1, I had the Washington book finished. I had read only 818 pages in January and that’s not a pace that you can keep if you want to read 30,000 pages.
I had hoped that some of the books could be obtained from the library, and I did check out the Th. Jefferson book from the Dakota Public Library, but I learned, much to my chagrin, that a lot of these books (most of them) were not available here or via the Hennepin Country Library, which I can access through my Dakota Country Library pass. So, I started to acquire the books. And, some of them were quite expensive. My thinking is that I want to spend a little as possible, so if there’s a kindle version available that’s probably the cheapest (but not always!) and I’m not adverse to buying used books. One thing I found was that buying used books is fine, but you need to allow about a month for them to be delivered. As I picked up my pace, I started ordering ahead.
Along the way, I’ve made some changes in the list. I’ve decided that one book per president is a rule that I’m going to follow. In two different cases, there were selections of trilogies that I replaced with one book each. Plus, I’ve found that a lot of these books will have 100 or even 200 pages in some cases of end notes. Therefore, a book with 800 pages might only be 650 pages of reading. With the change in books in some instances (I changed my Rutherford B. Hayes book because I wasn’t going to pay $120 to read about him), my page total is now around 25,000 pages. As of today, I’m about 300 pages behind schedule, but I’m on pace to read about 3,200 pages in March, which will put me well above pace. Currently, I need to average 71 pages a day to finish by December 31. I think that’s totally doable.
So far, this has been a really fun project for me. I’m learning a lot about these presidents, the first 65 years of the United States (so far) and the variation between the authors in how they treat events. A book about James Madison is going to plow a lot of the same territory as a book about Jefferson. So is a book about John Quincy Adams, but seeing those events play out through, say, JQA’s eyes (and his biographer) provides texture that you wouldn’t get by reading just one book. Clearly, my decision to read them in order is a good one, as the subsequent books just add understanding to what I’ve already read. For example, one day I posed the question in the Cup of Coffee about what five things would you tell Thomas Jefferson. Having read a few more books since then, my questions would be different now.
I’m no history major, so I feel like when I talk about some of this stuff, some of you are probably saying, I can’t believe you didn’t know that. I’m also quite aware of the Dunning-Krueger Effect. (I watched Jared Kushner for four very long years.) I’m far from an expert on the first 65 years of US History! I’ve just read 8 books on it. It’s prompted me to think about what next after this project – who should I read next? It turns out that the guy at the best presidential bios site has a whole list of people that he was inspired to read about during his journey (he did this over like seven or eight year and read several books about each president… wow). So, I already have access to a list of people who I might want to read about to fill in the blanks.
Anyway, for those of you who have read this far, my plan is to start summarizing these books in individual posts. I hope you will be interested enough to read what I have to say and comment. If not, this posting is a way to preserve for my own memory what I’ve been through on this journey.