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What I'm Reading (No. 28): the first president + new directions
Please read to the end; there's a note about new things I'm exploring and a slight change in direction in my own reading habits.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
With the wild of success of Hamilton the play, Ron Chernow is currently best known for his biography of Alexander Hamilton, which the play is based off of. And while all his books have received excellent reviews and numerous awards, the only one to receive perhaps the most prestigious — the elusive Pulitzer — is 2010's Washington: A Life.
This is a book that's often called not only the best biography of George Washington, but perhaps one of the best biographies ever written. At the popular bestpresidentialbios.com, it's the only bio (spanning every president) to receive a perfect 5-star rating. This of course leads to enormously high expectations as a reader.
A note about Chernow before getting into reviewing the book: he has a penchant for writing huge biographies that all span 800+ pages. Not only are they long, but the type is small too. These are textbook-like tomes in their meatiness, and make for reading that while rather enjoyable, is not necessarily easy.
I actually started reading this book in college, and got a few hundred pages in before giving up. I recently decided, though, to read a biography of each president in order (I've read a few here and there, but thought it'd be good to start fresh at #1), so I picked it up again and started anew. Even this time around, I made it about 50 pages in and took a break. I just couldn't get into it for some reason. I tried again a few weeks later, and finally realized the book's brilliance, blasting through at over 100 pages per day.
Simply put, Washington: A Life is a masterpiece of biography. Again, while it's not an easy read, it is an immensely enjoyable and interesting one. The reader comes away not necessarily convinced of Washington's likeability (he actually comes across as rather stiff and overly driven by appearances), but entirely convinced that he was the perfect leader for the fledgling Continental Army, and then, of course, the nation. In the late 1700s, many citizens and world leaders actually thought the new democratic experiment would fail. Washington in fact only ran for a second term because he was worried the country would fall apart if his stability wasn't around for another 4 years. And he was quite possibly right. He was America's rock at the start, and there's a reason Washington is considered one of the greatest presidents and heads-of-state in world history.
As a biographer, Chernow superbly makes this point. The writing is so descriptive and visceral that I was dreaming about Washington for a couple weeks as I read this: I was there in Valley Forge, at Mount Vernon, in the presidential residence in Philadelphia (which we don't even arrive at until 500+ pages in).
Overall, it's utterly superb reading for the armchair historian. That said, it will be a tough go for someone who hasn't read much history for fun. That's just how it goes with the historical biography genre; a natural inclination for the topic is generally a must.
I can't wait to read his other biographies of Hamilton, Ulysses Grant, and John Rockefeller (those first two of which are already on my shelf). I also can't wait to see who he ends up profiling next.
A Note to My Readers
In general, you'll be seeing more biographies in these weekly emails. I have a side project of this side project in the works that digs more into that niche. It's just what I'm really into right now. And the bigger the better.
In raising a daughter — albeit a mighty small one right now — I've also come to realize that I don't know much about the great women of world history. I have plenty of men in my mental storehouse to look up to (and for my kids to look up to) — Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. — but not nearly enough women. So for every 1-2 biographies of men I read, I'll also be reading one of a notable woman. (It'll sometimes get out of whack due to availability or work assignments, which can often be biographies.)
In doing some research about what are considered the great biographies, it's been far easier to find men (and especially white men) profiled. I've had to do some digging, unfortunately, but I think I have a good list of biographies about women to work from. That said, I'd love to hear from you all about your favorite bios — especially if it's about an awesome woman.
This week I finished Helen Keller's autobiography The Story of My Life. (It's really short, like less than 100 pages, and often included with a boatload of letters; just read the autobio to start.) I'll feature it next week, I think. Even though it was written when Helen was just 21, it's a brilliant piece of writing. I'm tasked with reading a Bruce Lee biography in the next week or so for work, and after that I think I'll dig into Stacy Schiff's widely acclaimed Cleopatra.
As always, I welcome your thoughts, and what you've been reading this week! I really appreciate your readership and support of this little project that is now into over 6 months of weekly newsletters. You guys are great.