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What I’m Reading (No. 116): normal-ish
On a beautiful sunny day, while grabbing coffee during a walk around the neighborhood, I remarked to the barista that this week felt just a little bit normal. The previous two weeks were entirely bizarre and a bit scary and seemingly never-ending.
But this week, the new routines felt just that . . . routine. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but at least I was able to stay away from constant news-watching and anxious hand-wringing this week. One benefit of this new normal was that my reading felt less harried, perhaps aided by having found the right book to provide a lovely distraction.
That book was A Gentleman in Moscow. I mentioned it last week as our next book club pick and heard from a number of you about it, most of whom really enjoyed it. I plowed through its 450 pages in just about a week and loved every minute. It was elegant, wry, and generally just a really nice story about a guy on house arrest in a luxury hotel in Moscow. I won’t go into too much detail before our book club talks about it though, which means you’ll have to wait a while. Sorry folks. I’ll just say for now that it was a delightful and surprisingly comforting read for the moment.
So, this week I’ll talk about a book I read a few months back that hadn’t yet found a place here in the newsletter, as well an idea I have for a rhythmic calendar of reading. First, let’s take a quick look at some of your pandemic thoughts.
Some Pandemic Thoughts From My Readers
Last week I asked to hear from about about how the pandemic is affecting your life. It was really touching to see how many responded and the wide variety of experiences we’re all having. Here’s just a few of those notes:
Sam: “We have 3 adults working from home and 4 kids doing virtual learning in the house. Doing our best to establish routines, stay physically active, and emotionally connected, but it’s a challenge.”
Eric: “I have some grief over canceled plans to celebrate my parents 50th wedding anniversary (we’ll find another way, but our plans . . . are shot).”
Mel: “I graduated college in December, and began working in January. About two weeks ago I was let go over uncertainty about projected business forecasts. I enjoyed the work in sales for a small company, but it is out of my hands. . . . On the bright side I am reading more than I ever have in my life.”
Carrie: “I was relieved to hear you, like me, are finding it hard to keep your mind attending to things. . . . Maybe poetry is the way to engage our brains at a worrisome time such as this: the thoughts are often more briefly stated, yet express emotions we long to share with someone!”
Jason: “What gives me anxiety is the impact this could have on my kids. School is already cancelled through April 13, but I could see that being pushed to May or even through the end of the school year. My wife and I are both trying to work full time with young kids in the house. The state has limited what schools can offer virtually, so we’ve kind of been left on our own to keep them occupied. It’s really disappointing.”
An Idea for a Rhythm of Reading
At the beginning of the year, I made a list. For each month, I’d find at least one book that revolved around a theme related to that month. It’s a pattern I’d like to see repeated annually in my own reading life.
January calls for a political read, which started back in 2016 with Donald Trump’s inauguration (that feels like another lifetime ago, doesn’t it?). February, as Black History Month, gets something in that realm. March, as noted just a couple weeks ago, is Women’s History Month.
April can go one of two routes: the first option is to read something about Lincoln and/or the Civil War. The war functionally ended on April 9, 1865; Lincoln was shot five days later on April 14. The other option, which is what I’ll be going with, is to read something climate/nature related, in line with April 22’s Earth Day. I had The Uninhabitable Earth on hold from the library, but that’s not gonna happen, so I’ll probably pick up The Future We Choose, which was recently sent to me.
So, dear reader, I’d encourage you to choose something in one of those two veins to read this month. I’d also love to hear what you read for Women’s History Month in March.
Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote by Craig Fehrman (2020, 337 pages)
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you know that I’m both a history nerd and a bibliophile. Which means this new book was basically 337 delightful pages of heaven for me.
Nearly all of our presidents have been writers to some degree — whether in the form of a campaign book or a post-presidency memoir, presidential authorship has become almost a certainty in recent decades.
What Ferhman does is critically analyze those books our presidents wrote (or claimed to have written), from Ulysses Grant’s famed memoirs to Calvin Coolidge’s surprisingly well-done autobiography to JFK’s secretive process in “writing” the Pulitzer-winning Profiles in Courage. Those are just a few of the marvelous backstories Feherman uncovers for the reader.
In addition, he provides some great peeks into the Presidents’ reading lives — from Lincoln’s self-education in the backwoods of Kentucky, to Theodore Roosevelt’s voracious, near addictive appetite for books of all genres, to Obama’s self-actualization in his reading of black history and literature.
The only problem with this book is its incredibly niche subject matter — the combination of presidential/political history with literary criticism is neither common nor terribly popular.
That said, I loved it. Fehrman covers a great deal of ground that even major biographers have skipped over in favor of “sexier” storylines, yet to the book lover, these stories are unquestionably enticing. Even the footnotes, appendix, and sources offer bookish gems.
That’s all for me this week. Wishing you health and sanity. Thanks for the time and inbox space.