The thing I really enjoy about biographies, when they’re well-written, is the context the author provides to the life. Dates, events, accomplishments…these things we can get on Wikipedia.
What Jon Meacham does, quite effectively, is wrap the life of Thomas Jefferson around his era, presenting him as a product–not just of his times–but also of his family and his ideals. And there’s the fine line, always present when a biographer steps beyond history, archives, hard evidence, or commentary given by contemporaries of the subject: that fine line is between what was plausible and possible, and what is hollow conjecture.
I remember the frustration of reading a very thick biography of Leonardo da Vinci years ago. Because of the limited resources and information available on the great man, the author continuously feel back on ‘what could have happened was’ or ‘what Leonardo could have been thinking was…’ While these informed hypotheses are interesting up to a point, they soon lose their mystery for a meat-and-potatoes reader like myself.
Meacham avoids this pitfall, engaging with facts and only occasionally putting forth a limited possibility, and only when it’s necessary to understand a moment in Jefferson’s life, and only when it’s supported by considerable evidence.
This, in addition to the author’s fluid, engaging style, makes for a fine read. Please share what’s on your nightstand, if you wish…here’s to a great 2019.
24 thoughts on “What I’m Reading Now…”
Thanks for the recommendation, Byron! I’m on the library waiting list for the newest book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership. In it, she examines the lives and presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Lyndon Johnson. From what I’ve read about it, her focus is on the extreme difficulties each of these men went through, and how they were changed by the challenges they faced and overcame. It may be several more weeks before the book is available to me!
Thanks, Katie. That sounds like a great read. – BGT
Just wrapping up the re-reading of “Simple Abundance” by Sarah Ban Breathnach and Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”. I thought these would be good brain fodder with which to enter a new year. It was, it is.
Sounds like a reading plan, Mary Helen. Good for you. – BGT
My husband enjoyed this one very much, it was one of his Christmas gifts a few years ago. He’s currently reading “The Winter Fortress” by Neal Bascomb, which was highly recommended by a friend with similar reading tastes, and he’s enjoying it, as well. Personally, I’m reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.”
Thanks, Melissa. – BGT
I have always enjoyed cooking. Every year I try to read a few books on cooking and learn a new technique or two. I am reading How to Cook Without a Book by Pamela Anderson and just finished The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn. This year I am going to try a perfect a few Indian meals starting with Tandoori chicken, beef vindaloo and naan.
Dinner at Janet’s house! I’ll bring dessert. (Wink, nod.) – BGT
I’m also waiting on Becoming by Michelle Obama. Will start that as soon as it arrives. Reading now some fiction, A Prayer for Owen Meany. It had a lot of good reviews. So far, I like it, but I prefer non-fiction.
I can’t wait to read ‘Becoming’ also. All my friends say it’s really inspiring. I really respect John Meacham. I have seen him often on MSNBC. He has a way of poetically describing class and character in a leadership context. Thanks Byron for this book recommendation!
You’re welcome. Yes, Meacham is great at putting things into perspective. – BGT
Thanks, Bev. – BGT
A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Dairy, 1939-1940 by Iria Origa, I like the way she captures how everything seems “normal” but it isn’t. It reminded me of the time I was was in a hotel at the tail end of a failed military coup. All of the military were making a fuss over my 3 month year old son and myself since we were western. Strange!
Genome: The Autobiography of a species. I read it to check over my sons science project. Just the perfect way our DNA is coded really reinforced my belief in G_d. It will be interesting to see where DNA modification on the human embryo (CRISPR) will lead. Maybe autism or hereditary breast cancer can be a thing of the past.
Feynman’s Lectures on Computation – Just a perfect book. (Picked it up at a used bookshop of the holidays). These are lectures transcribed from the early 1970’s and the topic of Quantum computing was covered.
In regards to this book please take a look at a you tube video “Mother of All Demos”. Everything you really see today has been around for a while and the people who developed it were cool acting.
My next book is going to be about the company Theranos and the scandal that endangered peoples lives.
(I am glad I have a library in the house rather than a home theater).
Thanks, Bob. What? No ‘surround sound’?!?! I’m shocked! – BGT
This sounds like a wonderful book! I like that you pointed out how the author is choosy about putting forth personal speculation, as is so often found in “history” books these days. Great post.
Thanks, Exlibris. Hope to hear more from you in the future. – BGT
Usually I have several at once depending on my mood or ability to concentrate. Currently, a book on etymology of words, and “Bringing up Bebe”, about the difference in parenting styles between the French and Americans. I have two new step grandsons, and this is giving me insight into what kind of influence I want to have on them as they grow up.
I read Bringing up Bebe a few years ago, as I have 6 and 5 year old sons. The piece that stuck with me most was for children greet shop owners as they enter. My sons now are very polite to “workers.” On our way back from FL a few days ago, my son said to the flight attendant, “Happy New Year! May I please have apple juice?” She was very happily surprised! They are also used to saying “thanks and have a nice day” to grocery store clerks, etc. As a mom, it is very cute to hear.
Amber, yes, you’re right. Acknowledging and considering other people is the first step in having respect for others, including how children treat their own parents ( as individuals, not as servants). I do have nieces and nephews raised overseas, and they actually ask how I am doing, how is work going, etc. It shows real maturity. My takeaway from the whole book is that children are also given respect as people, and assumed to be capable of being patient and responsible.
Thanks, Amber. I see so much of Bringing Up Bebe here in Paris. Congratulations on a well-mannered child. – BGT
I’m listening to France: A History from Gaul to de Gaulle by John Julius Norwich while out walking each morning. I’m enjoying its interesting stories and entertaining style. I’ve just started it after finishing another collection of writing edited by JJN called An English Christmas, which was a great listen over Christmas.
I’m also (re)reading the poetry of Banjo Patterson. Equal parts humorous and moving; evocative of another time and perfect for the Australian summer!
And (in the interest of full disclosure), my Christmas and New Year break largely involved binge-watching Downtown Abbey. I hadn’t seen more than a few episodes before. Now I’m done and missing the characters…
Thanks, Phillippa. A little reading…a little binge-watching…balance is important! – BGT
An Italian grammar and “Temple to the Wind: The Story of America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Masterpiece, Reliance”, by Christopher Pastore.
I’d refuse to get up in the morning to design/build a yacht for Cornelius Vanderbilt III, with the sole purpose of defeating Sir Thomas Lipton in the America’s Cup. How boring!
Hold the line, JL! – BGT