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What to Read Next (No. 252): Big New Bios + A Fun New Bookish App
Ted Kennedy is getting all the attention this fall.
Happy Friday, readers!
It’s always interesting to me when major biographies of major figures come out at around the same time. John Farrell’s Ted Kennedy: A Life (~600 pages) was published on October 25th and Neal Gabler’s Against the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Rise of Conservatism, 1976-2009 — which is ~1,200 pages and completes his two-volume bio — was published on November 15.
Publishing is a pretty insular industry, which means that Farrell and Gabler would have known of the other’s work — they certainly even shared resources and interviewees.
And, in the end, both agree that Kennedy, “the leading exponent of liberal causes in American politics,” deserves to be ranked among the great United States senators.
So why would I read both?
I was rather interested in exploring how different writing styles and approaches would affect the reading experience. Even though their conclusions are mostly similar, Farrell and Gabler took quite different paths to get there.
Now, I totally get that there’s a large percentage of you who won’t be interested in either author’s work. You gotta be a history nerd to enjoy them and it’s truly my pleasure to read some of these long books so that you don’t have to. 😄
This edition of the newsletter, then, is almost more about the funny timing of the publishing world, the process of writing a huge biography, and how two books about the same subject can differ so much depending on the author.
Before we get into the books, I have a fun new app to share with you.
Let’s do it.
PSA: Download Tertulia!
There are all kinds of bookish startups that reach out to me, pitching their new product or app in order for me to share with ya’ll. I say this not to brag about my bookfluencer status1, but to underscore how protective I am of my readers. Your trust means a lot to me.
One app that has caught my attention and stuck around in my daily online habits for the last couple months is Tertulia. It functions as both book discovery and independent bookshop.
In terms of discovery, Tertulia scours the internet and surfaces five books a day based on your interests and what’s being talked about on the web — I’ve come to quite enjoy it, if for nothing else than adding to my titanic TBR.
On the book-buying side, prices are what you’d expect from an independent bookstore, but if you become a member ($25/year), you get free shipping and 10% off all purchases. It’s a great non-Amazon option, if you’re interested in that sorta thing.
It’s a lovely, beautifully-designed site and app and I have no hesitation recommending it.
The folks at Tertulia were kind enough to give my readers 3 months of free membership, which will set you up perfectly for the holidays.
Give it a shot today with my link below:
Ted Kennedy: A Life by John Farrell
“While it is impossible for any Kennedy to be overlooked, this one has surely been underestimated.”
John Farrell, with his 600-page dive into the life of Ted Kennedy, has taken a relatively spritely book when compared to Gabler’s 2,000 pages (over the course of two volumes).
What makes Farrell’s approach especially impressive is where he chooses to gloss over some details (Ted is into adulthood after just a few dozen pages) and delve deeply into others (like Ted’s lifelong fight for healthcare legislation).
As Nathanial Philbrick has written2:
“A great and enduring book isn’t comprehensive; it is highly, even ruthlessly, selective, zeroing in on the most evocative and illustrative moments while dispensing with the clutter that might prevent the high points from resonating to maximum effect.”
Even though this is a long book, Farrell has expertly picked the pieces of the story that most reveal the life and character of his subject. Because of this, though, some areas might feel clipped and lacking context, particularly if you aren’t very familiar with the Kennedy family.
Farrell especially excels at getting into Ted Kennedy’s head and giving readers a balanced look at the complex man who was an unmatched legislator but could never quite handle the weight of his last name. Could anyone, in those circumstances?
Short chapters and paragraphs make Ted Kennedy remarkably readable, especially as compared to Gabler’s two volumes, and I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in American politics.
Catching the Wind and Against the Wind by Neal Gabler
More than almost any other biographer I’ve read in the last decade, Neal Gabler reminds me of legendary writers Robert Caro and William Manchester. The prose is majestic, lyrical, and delightfully exhaustive.
However, there’s no way around the fact that Gabler’s two volumes on the life and times of Ted Kennedy are dense. The paragraphs are long, the anecdotes are longer, and there is nothing about this man’s life that will remain out of your grasp by the time you’ve finished all 2,000 pages.3
It goes well beyond being a biography of the final Kennedy son and becomes a thorough history of liberal politics in the latter half of the 20th century. Putting a human at the center, a Kennedy no less, is an effective way to keep the reader’s attention while exploring the larger forces at play — that constant, polarizing push and pull between conservatism and liberalism.
A couple minor critiques are worth noting: 1) Gabler’s political leanings are more apparent than Farrell’s — he’s a bit more fawning than I prefer, and 2) the length and depth of these two books will keep all but the most invested readers away.
I can only recommend Catching the Wind and Against the Wind to a small circle of readers who are intensely interested in huge, sweeping biographies that’ll keep them occupied for a long stretch of time. That audience definitely exists, it’s just exceedingly small.
That all said, I don’t want this to sound like a negative review. I really enjoyed the reading experience — it’s almost like history as poetry. If you’re part of that small subset of readers interested in this kind of reading project and time investment, you’ll absolutely love Gabler’s writing and insights.
That’s all for me this week! Thanks so much for the time and inbox space. I deeply appreciate it.
Though I’m happy to admit that it’s insanely fun getting all the free books I want.
In his introduction to Alfred Lansing’s Endurance.
I haven’t finished all 2,000 pages yet, but I’m far enough in to confidently convey the reading experience.