I am reading: Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and The Books They Wrote, by Craig Fehman. While it is not in the title, I would add that past presidents are enthusiastic readers. I already knew about Thomas Jefferson, but he was not alone. These leaders had the space and wealth to acquire massive personal libraries. It appears that some were addicted to reading.
Here are a couple of interesting facts:
- They wrote in their books…A LOT! I loved learning this because I, too, write in my books. I underline and make notes all along the page edges. It makes it difficult to pass these books on to others and impossible to sell. A few friends told me they like my notes. It tells a little about me, for one thing. One friend said, “You don’t read books; you study them.”
2. Biographies written by the presidents were of two types: campaign books and legacy books. I have read some of each.
The campaign books were written before a person ran for the presidency. In the early years, humility was considered so important a virtue for presidents that they didn’t even campaign for themselves. Their friends and supporters did all the work. Some newly elected didn’t even attend their own victory parties. While tooting their own horns was frowned upon, a person could write a biography that told of his life and philosophy. If done well, the general public wouldn’t even know of a man’s ambitions. JFK wrote Profiles in Courage and Obama wrote two, The Audacity of Hope and Dreams of Our Fathers. One could argue whether they weren’t really writing with the idea of campaigning for the presidency, but I would suggest that the books indicated that both of them were pretty ambitious when it came to politics. Some earlier presidents wrote under a ghost writer…to maintain their humble image.
Legacy books are written after one has left office. As you might expect, such a book gives a former president an opportunity to defend themselves against their critics and to justify decisions they made while in office. Obama wrote one of these, A Promised Land. I read both of his books. I happen to have been a supporter of President Obama, but I could clearly see that he wanted an opportunity to defend actions for which he was criticized.
This morning I read about Lincoln who didn’t have access to books until his fathers’ second marriage. His father thought reading was a waste of time, better to put your time into physical labor. Add to this the dire poverty and lack of access to books. One time Abe’s neighbor loaned him a book to read and it was spoiled when rain leaked through the Lincoln shack. It took him a long time to pay for the damage. Lincoln also liked to write and was known to write on paper anywhere he could find it and on wood slices from the wood pile. One of the reasons he settled in Springfield IL is that there was a library there, rare for areas in the boonies…those areas west of the elite East.
I feel I have more in common with these folks than with my peers today. I am eager to learn about more recent presidents and their reading and writing practices.