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What to Read Next (No. 153): Jimmy Carter // interview with Jonathan Alter
This week I finished a big bio that may end up on my final list of favorite 2020 reads, and the author of that big bio generously answered a few bookish questions for me.
I also have a number of fun links to share before getting into the meat of this week’s newsletter. Let’s get right to it.
I have a number of links and quick hits to share this week:
I sent an email Sunday night asking ya’ll about the best book(s) you read in 2020. It got a lot of responses. You could plan your next couple years of reading if you felt like it. I may compile entries into a Google Sheet, because I’m nerdy like that. Thanks to everyone who chimed in!
John le Carre passed away this week as well. I’ve not read any of the famed spy novelist’s work. Let me know if you have, and what I should start with.
LitHub compiled picks from all the Best of 2020 lists out there. The kind of article that “books to read” lists dream of.
My latest bookish Art of Manliness article: How to Choose a Biography. Helpful when having to decide between multiple books about a subject.
Give me a follow on Instagram and Twitter, if you haven’t already. Even more bookish content over there. On Instagram, I’m in the middle of exploring lessons from 46 presidents in the 46 days until Joe Biden’s inauguration.
His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life by Jonathan Alter
Published: 2020 | Pages: 674
Let me say it from the get-go: His Very Best is just about everything I want and hope for in a big presidential biography. Alter tells an incredibly compelling story, clears up a lot of myths people have about Jimmy Carter (and the 70s in general), gives the reader an incredibly personal look at the man himself, and convincingly makes the case for the importance (not necessarily effectiveness) of his presidency.
Simply for the fact that the guy is still kicking, there haven’t been any full-scale biographies about Jimmy Carter. Surprisingly, though, there isn’t much out there about his presidency either. Thus far, the consensus has basically been that he wasn’t good as president but is as decent a human being as exists.
That story isn’t entirely rewritten, but Alter does add the necessary nuances. The Carter administration was far more impactful than it seems, but was largely done apart by two things: the conservative presidency of Ronald Reagan and the overshadowing of foreign affairs—mainly the Iran hostage situation.
Alter covered the political aspects of Carter’s presidency superbly. I’m a sucker more for personal details, so sometimes in a biography my eyes glaze over amidst the details of deal-making, but I was entranced on nearly every page of His Very Best.
As for the personal stuff, the reader gets a clear sense of who Jimmy Carter is as a human. While there’s not a “dark” side to the man like there are with a lot of leaders, there is a prickly stubbornness and a foolish unwillingness to engage in the optics of politics—which is a big part of why he served a single term and didn’t win re-election.
I can’t think of any faults with this biography, other than the fact that I wanted more. A deeper dive into some other players of the era would have been great, but asking for too much. I nearly impulse-bought Alter’s other three books, but I exercised some restraint, for now. I’m already excited to read ‘em someday.
On a related note, there’s another big Carter bio coming in the spring, authored by the illustrious Kai Bird. I’ll be curious to see how his take compares with Alter’s.
A Few Bookish Questions With Jonathan Alter
Jonathan was kind enough to take a little time to answer some questions for me. I was especially curious about some more ideas for studying the politics of the late 70s, and he didn’t disappoint.
1. Your new book is about Jimmy Carter. Are there books that helped you best understand the 70s and that particular era of American and world history?
There are surprisingly few, but you might try Andrew Scott Cooper, The Fall of Heaven, about the fall of the shah; David Frum, How We Got Here: The '70s; Hendrik Hertzberg, Politics; J. Anthony Lukas, Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years, and Jonathan Mahler, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning. I have a lot more in my bibliography. I would also recommend Doonesbury.
2. You've also written about Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama. What are the most impactful books you've read about the American presidency? Are there books that inspired you to dig into POTUS history as a subject area? Are there authors who have particularly inspired your writing style?
As a student, I was inspired by David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, though it's not about presidents as such, and, later, by David Herbert Donald's Lincoln. (He was my professor at Harvard.) Edmund Morris on TR and James McGregor Burns on FDR are classics, as are Robert Caro's volumes on Lyndon Johnson. David McCullough's Truman was a big inspiration for my Carter bio. As Judy Woodruff and others have said to me recently, I'm trying to do for Carter what McCullough did for Truman—restore his reputation 40 years after he left office as an unpopular president.
3. I imagine most of your reading is non-fiction. Do you have any favorite escapist/comfort reads?
Not really, I find history escapist.
4. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list?
5. Are there any books you find yourself talking a lot about or recommending over and over again?
Thanks, as always, for the time, attention, and inbox space. I really appreciate it.