Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I wish I had read more biographies, when . . .

This morning I finished reading an excellent new biography of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Like other well-done biographies, the book gave me a lot of new insight into what was going on during lifetime of the subject.

Since I retired ten years ago I have turned to reading biographies in a big way, largely because of my dissatisfaction with the alternatives: fiction, and non-biographical non-fiction.

At our local library, I have had trouble finding novels that were not utterly predictable and boring and appparently written to formula. And much of the nonfiction I have tried is either loaded with details in which I am not interested or full of high level abstractions that sound good but which don't get me very far in my efforts to think things out.

Biographies, which are full of details, can make them interesting because they are the details of an individual human life, an intrinsically interesting thing. And of course life is much stranger, and therefore more interesting, than fiction.

In the last couple of years I have read biographies of Justice Scalia, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Andrew Johnson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Prokofiev, Stalin, Yeltsin, Tony Blair, Booker T. Washington, and many others who do not presently come to mind. They all kept my interest and drew my attention to questions and issues that I had never thought about or noticed.

For example, the book about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson pointed out that the clause in the original Constitution in which slaves only counted for 3/5 of a person in calculating each state's representation in the House of Representatives was put in at the insistence of delegates to the Constitutional Convention from the north----the southern delegates wanted them to count the same as anyone else, which would have increased the south's clout in the House. (Of course, they had no intention of letting the slaves vote!)

And I had not realized that Franklin D. Roosevelt was fluent in French and German, had studied in Europe, and as a youth had gone on a bicyling tour of Europe with his tutor.

I now wish that I had read more biographies while I was still teaching, as I would have picked up countless anecdotes that would have interested my students and illustrated points I was making for them, as well as a much better understanding of the periods whose politics we were studying.

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