The study of history is an edifying thing but it’s also a time consuming thing. 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 his life of studying “humanity’s crooked path.”
While slowly reading and sipping coffee this morning, I read these lines on page 58:
…The Juheina tribe, on Feisal’s left, lost heart quickly and fled the battlefield. The Juheina would later claim that they had merely been tired and thirsty and had needed a coffee break…their flight led to the rapid collapse of the rest of Feisal’s line and a disorderly rout…
One hopes they were going for expresso, because the regular coffee wasn’t doing it!
Anyway, in a Western army—this was 1916, the middle of WWI—a commander would have most likely faced a firing squad for this.
Later on, when Lawrence met up with Feisal, the Emir wasn’t upset at all about his army’s collapse in the face of a Turkish force half the size of his, in fact Feisal was in a rather “jolly mood.” He was trading good natured taunts and insults with another Arab commander over “the speed” in which his forces had also “run away” in the face of a Turkish force.
One of the early lessons Lawrence took from Emir Fiesal, the man Lawrence felt had the heroic qualities to lead the Arab revolt, was a sense of humor, “that invariable magnet of Arab good will” Lawrence wrote, that was one of the key qualities that allowed Fiesal to maintain the cohesion and loyalty of the various tribal leaders. “The tribesmen,” Korda wrote, “responded poorly to criticism or reproof but enjoyed a good story even when it was at their own expense.”
Fiesal’s army wasn’t a disciplined professional army but a collection of Bedouin tribes, any of which, if they’d had enough, could walk away at any time. To keep this army together would take a leader adept in emotional intelligence, which Fiesal seemed naturally endowed with.
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!
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 “book room” 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 book room 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 his powerful, sharp 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 library, 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 as being “a feast of reason and a flow of soul.”