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…
Looking forward to the hard data.
It’s amazing you’ve been able to stick with this! What an audacious undertaking!
Congratulations on this milestone.
Thanks – this year’s New Year’s Resolution is going to be sticking to it for another year. But at this point there’s certainly no turning back(!)
Billy Watson said:
That’s a lot of notes. Don’t know what kind of system you have, but Workflowy is free and fantastic
I’m just using Microsoft Word (on a Mac). Sort of brut force. I’ll be taking a look at what the software you referenced to see if it’s easier or a better way to organize things (I think I already know the answer)…
Well this family member didn’t feel obligated to follow your blog (I met my quota of sisterly obligation at about the age of 4 after attending countless baseball games, musical lessons, academic decathlon competitions, etc.) but after becoming intrigued by various other family members’ comments, I’ve been enthusiastically following your blog for the past 7 months. Keep up the great work!
Yes, you really did get dragged around to a lot of older sibling “stuff” when you were young, didn’t you? But somehow you survived and, except for choosing to live in a state that makes Saskatchewan’s weather look balmy on occasion, you seem to be outshining your older siblings. Thanks for following along, and I’ll try not to let it get dull! (But no promises on Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan…)
John Scribner (@Scribdecahedron) said:
You’re providing an excellent service here, and I really hope you keep it up! I have found your reviews to be invaluable in picking out which bios I want to include in my own reading list. Thanks for doing what you do!
Thanks for the great feedback and rest assured I’m having a blast. If/when you read a biography from my list (whether completed or to-come) please let me know what you thought. For books I’ve already read I’m always interested to hear whether someone thinks I’ve missed the boat entirely, or hit the nail dead-center.
I came late to the party but am enjoying following along your journey. I have used a couple of your summary posts to determine which biographies to purchase and which to let be. Can’t wait to see the numbers in part 2.
Your second-to-last “surprise” (about reading an event ten or twelve times) resonates. That’s part of why I love reading history. It’s a rewarding challenge to try to understand multiple perspectives. I’m enjoying reading yours.
Liz Parrott said:
I love your blog! Even though I write about kid lit about politics, it helps to read what you say about adult books in the same genre. As an adult, I’m very interested in James Madison right now, and when it came time to buy a book about him, I went straight to your blog.
I agree completely about the time it takes to write a review. It takes a lot of work to get it right. I enjoy writing, though, so part of the fun is sharpening my writing skills in this new genre of book reviewing.
Thanks so much!
History always fascinated me especially in high school. While I read fiction avidly, with non-fiction somehow, the book gets laid aside and forgotten as I get busy with other tasks… I really enjoy reading your reviews of the various books you are reading on presidential biographies. I am hoping to add an item to my 2014 resolution to pick up one of these books and see it through before the year is out!
Congrats on the 1 year accomplishment and best wishes for the next. I have been enjoying following your journey and have added a few to my own reading adventure – especially about those who are not frequently written about.
Matt Thurston said:
Where’s the page where you list the 125 biographies you own or plan to read?? Can you publish for those of us who want to “read ahead”?
Not sure how you are going to pick among the scores written about Lincoln, TR, FDR, and JFK. Good luck!
As for my own very modest list, I’ve enjoyed the following:
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
Truman by David McCullough
John Adams by David McCullough
Lincoln by David Herbert Donald
His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis
Wilson by A. Scott Berg
With plans to read many more. And I’ll be coming HERE for recommendations!!
Check ***The Best Presidential Biographies*** along the top menu bar for the full list (of 170 now, I believe). My answer on Lincoln, TR, FDR, etc. is to read as many as I can manage! Everything you listed is on my list (two down, several to go I see, and you appear to have listed many of the very best!)