Officially, today is a federal holiday to honor George Washington (whose birthday is actually…tomorrow).
Unofficially, today is either a holiday to celebrate the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln or it’s a day to honor everyone who has served in the presidency.
But to anyone really paying attention, today is the one day a year we’re afforded the opportunity to buy a new mattress or refrigerator. Because…obviously.
For me, though, today is meaningful for two other reasons:
* It’s the 3-year anniversary of the completion of my dedicated 6+ year journey through 240 of the best biographies I could find of every president from Washington to Obama.
* It’s one of the best opportunities I have to share mindless insights and trivia designed to tickle, thrill and titillate.
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What did I accomplished the past 12 months?
* Read 22 biographies including 8 presidential biographies. My presidential favorites were John Boles’s “Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty,” Kai Bird’s newly-released “The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter” and Jay Cost’s hot-off-the-press “James Madison: America’s First Politician.”
* My favorites among the non-presidents: Robert Massie’s classic “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty,” Les & Tamara Payne’s “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X” (which was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize), Evan Thomas’s “First: Sandra Day O’Connor” and David Roll’s fascinating biography of Harry Hopkins.
* I also planted about 1,000 dahlias, officiated a dozen swim meets, piloted myself to the 200th airport of my non-professional flying career (hello Burlington, NC!) and became mesmerized by good French press coffee.
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So what’s coming up this year?
* At least 8 more presidential biographies including Irving Brant’s 1970 biography of James Madison and David Brown’s upcoming release “The First Populist: The Defiant Life of Andrew Jackson.” I’m also considering Troy Senik’s upcoming biography of Grover Cleveland (yes, really) and Fred Kaplan’s upcoming exploration of Thomas Jefferson which, I’m told, may emphasize his genius as a writer.
* But wait, there’s more! Because I’m not solely focused on the presidents, I’ll also be reading Walter Stahr’s “Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln’s Vital Rival” (being released tomorrow), a highly-regarded biography of Adolf Hitler by Ian Kershaw, a biography of explorer Ernest Shackleton and David Nasaw’s “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst.”
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But where’s the trivia?
* This website enjoyed about 500,000 visits the past year from 185 countries. The most prolific non-US visitor? The UK followed closely by Canada. The fewest? Some lonely soul in Burundi.
– 1 of every 6 page views is of my master list of Best Presidential Biographies
– 1 of every 6 page views is for a book review
– 2 of every 6 page views is for a Best Biographies of _____ summary
* The most popular presidents based on your search activity?
…….Teddy Roosevelt (almost 10% of all president-specific page views)
…….Abraham Lincoln (only slightly behind TR)
…….(For the curious among you…George Washington was just 12th)
* The least popular presidents?
…….Chester Arthur (with about 1% of your attention)
…….Benjamin Harrison (ditto)
…….Millard Fillmore (who?)
* The year’s most popular books / book reviews?
…….”Grant” by Ron Chernow
…….”Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow
…….”His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life” by Jonathan Alter
…….”FDR” by Jean Edward Smith
…….”James Monroe: A Life” by Tim McGrath
* The year’s least popular books / book reviews?
…….Nice try! But they cover Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford 🙂
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The Elephant(s) in the Room:
In addition to comments posted to this website, I receive emails from visitors with some very popular questions including:
– “Who was your favorite president and why?”
– “What are the essential elements of a great presidential biography?”
– “How would you rank the presidents from best to worst?”
I still haven’t satisfactorily addressed any of these questions except: for my wife (who probably received a less-pithy response than she desired) and for someone at a well-known newspaper who finagled an answer from me before becoming preoccupied with a book he or she may be writing about a “controversial” figure in recent American history.
At some point I will find the time to thoughtfully answer these questions. In some cases I have definitive, deeply-considered views. In others, the answers are more evanescent and subject to the vagaries of the moment. But it’s all fascinating food for thought.
In the meantime, let’s all do a Rain Dance in the hopes that (i) the final volume in Robert Caro’s LBJ series is published before I’m eligible to collect social security, and that (ii) Ron Chernow uncovers a cache of documents vital to fleshing-out a tantalizing portrait of Martin Van Buren and undertakes the project with haste. (Yes, I still have high hopes for a great biography of the Little Magician!)
(Photo courtesy of http://www.whitehouse.gov)
Steve H said:
Thanks for the update! I’m curious if you plan to read all 6 volumes of Brant’s bio of Madison or the 1-volume abridgement.
At the moment I’m planning to read the abridgement, but we’ll see whether I’m feeling unusually ambitious when I get there 🙂
Thanks for the good humor and insights and congrats on a successful year. Good health and best wishes for another year of good reading! I visited Grant’s mountain retreat and place where he died in New York state, and am eager to read the Chernow biography of him. I read Chernow’s Washington, and so anticipate a rich experience.
I haven’t gotten to Grant’s cabin yet but I hope to before too long. I think you’ll enjoy the Chernow biography of him – especially if you liked “Washington: A Life.” But do let me know if you end up being disappointed(!) In no biography of Grant have I ever found his presidency terribly enticing, but the other decades of his life are irresistibly entrancing and Chernow does a great job with them.
Russ Robinson said:
It’s been a pleasure to follow your blog. I look forward to your next round of bios. You have inspired me in my on reading of bios.
Somehow I was expecting far more than 500,000 website views in the year! For how detailed and useful your reviews, like the Consumer Reports of presidential biographies, this site deserves more! I certainly recommend it to everyone I know who asks me for a presidential bio rec, though I admit at least half are for the best TR bio!
I am embarrassed to say I am yet to finish reading Washington’s biography. If memory serves I bought it right after you posted your review. One of these days will have the time to finally read it. Always amazed by your progress reading and writing these reviews.
Happy President’s Day!
In regards to the last part, I heard a recent episode of the Age of Jackson podcast where the guest (James Bradley, co-editor of the Van Buren Papers project) discusses a Van Buren biography that he is currently writing for Oxford. He also mentions his disappointment that the only two comprehensive Van Buren bios (by Niven and Cole) are both deeply flawed. So who knows how his book will be or when it’s coming but it’s at least something to look forward to in the Van Buren realm!
I have been really enjoying your blog. Actually, Coolidge and Ford are my favorites, and I got valuable information via your reviews. I found that my school library has Donald McCoy’s Coolidge biography and plan to read it during the spring break!
Don Burkins said:
“…that (ii) Ron Chernow uncovers a cache of documents vital to fleshing-out a tantalizing portrait of Martin Van Buren and undertakes the project with haste. (Yes, I still have high hopes for a great biography of the Little Magician!)”
THIS! Yes! Yes!- I’d love a great read about Van Buren and his times. Remini made him seem so interesting while focusing on Jackson. I’m hoping to see that kind of depth, insight, and readability about MvB. If you have any influence … 👍