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What I’m Reading (No. 113): books as comfort
What a strange week it’s been. The pandemic went from curious to serious to . . . something altogether new and different from anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.
Anxiety is high on all fronts — Will my elderly loved ones be okay? Can I (should I) still travel? What’s going to happen with the economy? What about the election? 2020 is shaping up to be a memorable year for perhaps all the wrong reasons.
And yet, we still have the books.
I don’t say that to be glib. Art can be a source of comfort in the midst of life’s difficulties. While the obvious response might be to turn to something that offers an escape (more on that in a sec), picking up a book of nearly any genre can be helpful. History tells us that our country and our planet have been through this before; biography explores the extraordinary difference that a single plucky person can make; how-to can offer a lesson in manual distraction and the practical building of skills (which can provide confidence, joy, entertainment, and even real-life value); religious and philosophical texts can of course offer comfort and guidance in a wholly different way.
Reading any book is healthier than gluing yourself to the overwhelming barrage of news stories and tweets. As someone who works on the internet for a living, it’s quite hard for me to look away, so I’m definitely working on taking my own advice.
One last thing before we jump in: it’s okay to practice escapism sometimes. Life is hard, and it may only get more fraught in the next handful of weeks. If you need a break, pick up a graphic novel or a cheap thriller or anything else you consider your guilty pleasure — only don’t let yourself feel any guilt about it.
There’s a quote from Kavalier and Clay that I love. The context is the 1950s and the comic book industry is being investigated by Congress for its deleterious effects on the minds of young people:
“The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited ‘escapism’ among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.”
The reality is that our escapism is rarely or purely just that. If nothing else, it can refresh our minds and give our intellect a break in order to tackle anew the problems of the day.
All of this is to say: lean in to the books. They’re here for you.
Grant by Ron Chernow (2017, 959 pages)
“When did [Grant] ever turn back? He was not that sort; he could no more turn back than time! . . . Grant was one of the inevitables; he always arrived; he was invincible as a law: he never bragged—often seemed about to be defeated when he was in fact on the eve of a tremendous victory.” —Walt Whitman
My tour through the presidents continued out of order with my delving into Ulysses Grant. Until recently, he was considered a president worth forgetting, despite his heroic leadership during the Civil War.
In recent years, though, scholars have been revitalizing his sad legacy, and scores of armchair historians are discovering that his presidency wasn’t as bad as it’s been made out to be.
Of those those new books, Chernow’s Grant was the easy choice for where to start. His Washington: A Life remains possibly my favorite of the presidential reads thus far. And ultimately, I came away admiring Grant even more than I thought I would. Washington was perhaps the better read, but Grant was the better, more relatable person.
Few presidents have come from more humble circumstances — Lincoln did, LBJ did, perhaps one or two more. What was interesting about Grant’s rise, however, was how quickly it happened. When the Civil War broke out, he was working as a clerk at his father’s shop in small-town Illinois; it was humiliating. This 38-year-old was relying on his ne’er-do-well father and trying to tamp down the far-spread rumors of his alcoholism.
But the war, as it did dozens of personalties, almost immediately elevated Grant to a station of great importance. With a couple of small-ish victories out west, and just a couple years removed from near destitution, Ulysses was suddenly leading the charge and delivering the Union army’s greatest victories.
What was it about the man that nobody else could see? Why did he not find success in “real” life but all of sudden rise to the occasion in battle? It ultimately came down to his bulldog spirit. Where other union generals overestimated Confederate forces and whimpered away from fighting and chances at annihilation, Grant went on the attack and never stopped attacking. He just kept on keeping on.
Then the man spent 8 years as president trying to enact Reconstruction, but a corrupt Cabinet and petulant Southern politicians, combined with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes after Grant’s two terms, ultimately led to the failures of those inspired Reconstruction efforts. That is what led to Grant’s poor image — it was not a poor performance as Commander-in-Chief.
Boy oh boy. I could write a lot more because Grant was such a fascinating figure. And I’m so glad that the unparalleled Ron Chernow chose him as a subject. This is a phenomenal book. If you read it, you’ll be better for it.
That’s all for me this week. I originally had a couple books I was going to cover, but this feels like plenty. Get some reading in and let me know what you’re digging into. Thank you for the time and inbox space.