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.”
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!
In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them. — Mark Twain
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 “bookroom” 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 bookroom 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 powerfully quick, creative, and intelligent 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 bookroom, 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.”
Right now I’m reading a superb biography on Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) by Leo Damrosch. Swift is one of the most memorable personalities in the history of literature. This biography is hard to put down. The book is a masterpiece of prose and storytelling itself. Swift was an essayist and satirist with a sharp mind and a burning wit. For me, Swift’s most memorable quotes, the ones that remain in my mind when I think of Swift, are:
“The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.”
“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”
“If a man would register all his opinions upon love, politics, religion, learning, etc., beginning from his youth and so go on to old age, what a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions would appear at last!”
“There is nothing in this world constant, but inconstancy.”
“…the most pernicious race of odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”
Swift is mostly known for his satirical story called Gulliver’s Travels. If you’re over 40 you may have had to read this story in middle school or high school. George Orwell, himself probably one of the top 5 English language essayists to ever pick up a pen, thought Gulliver’s Travels probably meant more to him than any other book ever written. Orwell said there was rarely a year that went by without him dipping into Swift’s classic. Orwell wrote an excellent essay on Swift well worth reading.
What brought me to writing this post was a rather humorous passage in Damrosch’s biography that highlights Swift the writer and Swift the personality. Swift was not, at least in many of his writings, a politically correct writer. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and he had little patience for literary cant. On Page 209 of Damrosch’s book he writes:
Commenting on a history of the Church, he [Swift] once rewrote an overelaborate passage in order to bring it to life. Here is the original text, describing unworthy clergymen: “They are an insensible and degenerate race, who are thinking of nothing but their present advantages; and so that they may now support a luxurious and brutal course of irregular and voluptuous practices, they are easily hired to betray their religion, to sell their country, and to give up that liberty and those properties which are the present felicities and glories of this nation.” That’s barely readable. Swift’s version gets rid of the big words and abstractions, and leaps from the page: “The bulk of the clergy, and one third of the bishops, are stupid sons of whores, who think of nothing but getting money as soon as they can. If they may but procure enough to supply them in gluttony, drunkenness, and whoring, they are ready to turn traitors to God and their country, and make their fellow subjects slaves.”
We could almost say this bitting, straightforward, no pulling punches writing style, is what we might call Swifting or the Art of Swifting.