About 7 years ago I embarked on a great adventure: to read the best biographies of every U.S. president and record my impressions along the way.A year ago I completed that journey having read 240 biographies of the former presidents and uncovered some great biographies – and some unexpectedly fascinating presidents!
In the months since then I’ve been asked to consider writing essays, articles and posts on topics such as:
– “Who was your favorite president and why?”
– “What are the essential characteristics of a great presidential biography?”
– “What are the factors critical to a successful presidency?”
But the question I’m asked most often: “How would you rank the presidents from best to worst?”
These are all interesting questions. And I do have an opinion on them (with varying degrees of precision and intensity). But I haven’t found the time to proffer appropriately thoughtful, cogent responses to them. Well…not yet 🙂
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So, how did I spend my first “free” year? Reading more biographies, of course!Follow-up bios of five presidents along with biographies of the fascinating people I encountered the past few years including Joseph P. Kennedy, Ben Franklin and Henry Clay. Finally, for good measure I tossed in some of the best biographies I could find of larger-than-life icons like Mozart, Steve Jobs and Walt Disney.
I also took a four-month break to read some long-neglected fiction, oversee the rehabilitation of an FDR-vintage house…and to re-seed my front yard.
How did I like the 17 biographies I read?
Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” was incredible – as good as anything I’ve ever read (review here) – and Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, while aggressive in length, was marvelous (review). I was a bit disappointed by Debby Applegate’s Pulitzer-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher (review) but I really disliked Maynard Solomon’s “Mozart: A Life.” C’est la vie.
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What’s coming in 2020? As always my road map for the next year is available here and I’m planning to read at least 32 biographies this year:
– 11 follow-up presidential bios including Chernow’s “Grant,” the 1968 abridgment of Douglas Southall Freeman’s series on Washington, a highly-anticipated & soon-to-be-published biography of James Monroe and Jonathan Alter’s long-awaited biography of Jimmy Carter.
– 11 biographies of irresistible personalities I met during my journey through the presidents including biographies of J.P. Morgan and John Rockefeller, a widely-praised biography of Winston Churchill by Andrew Roberts and Blanche Wiesen Cook’s three-volume series on the inimitable Eleanor Roosevelt.
⇒⇒⇒ If you have time, check out this slightly irreverent (cheeky?) but incredibly entertaining and informative podcast series on the presidents which recently debuted on a website I’ve been following for years. I’ve only listened to Episode 1 but it helped me survive a wretched morning commute on I-95 so I can’t wait to check out Episode 2!