It’s hard to believe I’ve been on this Best Presidential Biography journey for an entire year*. For reasons I can’t fully rationalize, last December I decided to forgo a traditional New Year’s resolution (which I would undoubtedly break after a few weeks) in favor of embarking on a more audacious task: beginning to systematically read each of the 125 presidential biographies I had collected over the previous few years.
* last night my wife said “Is that all? You’ve just been doing this for a year? For some reason it seems like much longer…” – I’m really not sure whether that was intended as positive feedback or not
So I spent a few days last December figuring out how to set up a website in order to chronicle my journey (for myself and for anyone in my immediate family I could cajole into monitoring my progress). And I’m now proof that those of us who failed to take a single web-design course in high school or college can put together a basic website. In my defense, there wasn’t even an internet back then…
My next task was calculating how long it might take to read my entire collection of the best presidential biographies. At first I estimated I would finish by Presidents’ Day 2015. Since starting this project, however, my pace has slowed by about 25% (those book review posts take much longer to write than they probably should) and largely at your suggestion(s) I’ve added forty biographies to the list. Yikes.
My new estimated date of completion: summer of 2016. But if I crank up the pace a little, I might finish by Presidents’ Day 2016 (and there would be much joy in my house).
If you had asked me a year ago what the odds were that I would still be at this today, I would have guessed one-chance-in-three. So I’m delighted to have exceeded my own low expectations. But despite some of the comments I’ve received (“I can’t believe how much you’ve read!”) I have only averaged about sixty-five pages a day which doesn’t seem particularly inspirational. I was hoping to be closer to a hundred.
Here are some of the highlights from the first year of this journey, and some of the surprises:
– 80 website posts (I know many of you who “blog” aim to post nearly every day, but anything over once a week is a victory in my world)
– My wife tolerates this endeavor (as long as it doesn’t permanently move ahead of mowing the lawn on my “to do” list)
– My kids tolerate this endeavor (they are under the misimpression that when I’m reading at home I’m not supervising them very closely)
– Flying over and photographing the estates of six (and counting) presidents who lived in Virginia; there’s something a little surreal about being able to admire their houses/grounds from a vantage point unavailable to them (until Teddy Roosevelt anyway)
– Hearing from several authors of biographies I’ve reviewed (and a few whose books I have yet not gotten to)
– I’ve learned (or re-learned) an enormous amount about American history, the American political system and the lives of the first ten presidents
– I have read some really really great presidential biographies (and very few I didn’t like)
– How many people other than my immediate family (who presumably feel obligated) follow this website
– How many people have embarked on the journey to read at least one biography per president – there are a lot of you out there!
– Reading is the easy part; writing the reviews seems to take all the time – far more than I would have guessed. In the time it takes me to publish an average review I could have read almost one-quarter of “the next” biography. And yet I still don’t catch all the typos, grammatical errors and who-knows-what-else…but not for lack of effort.
– I take notes – lots of notes. WAY more notes than I ever expected (clever one-liners and interesting facts or observations, in particular). I began doing this on my laptop when I got to the fourth biography and I now have over 750 pages of notes. This slows the pace, but with the benefit of creating a massive personal collection of historical wisdom and insight.
– Contrary to what you might think, reading about an event ten or twelve times does NOT make it easier to understand or remember. You’d be surprised how different the War of 1812 seems when described by a dozen different authors in biographies focused on four or five different presidents. Seriously.
– No matter what you believe about the fractious state of current American politics, they have been that way for a really long time. Politicians have been combative, belligerent and downright ugly from the very start. There’s little historically unique about the rancor in DC these days.
Part 2 of the “It’s the One-Year Anniversary Post!” including some interesting facts and figures about who you are, how many of you are out there, what you read and how on earth you found this website…