Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Saith James Madison, writing as Publius to the people of New York, November 23, 1787:

The latent causes of faction are sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.

And ever shall it be so.

– The Federalist No. 10

Party Politics | 6:50 am CST
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Friday, December 31st, 2010

I finished Colonel Roosevelt two and a half weeks after I started, partly because it’s five hundred seventy pages of solidly-written biography, and party because I put it on pause to read three other books. It’s not that the subject was uninteresting (perish the thought!) or the writing was poor (never!), it was me. I get distracted easily. Oooooo, shiny!

I had to read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars because My Darling B put it on hold for me at the library, which I thought would work out just fine. It was a new book and I was way down on the list, so I thought i had plenty of time. I was about a hundred fifty pages into Colonel Roosevelt when it came in. Should’ve known that would happen.

And Griftopia was just sitting there on the coffee table one day and I have such a good time reading Matt Taibbi. I don’t think anybody could fault me for taking a weekend off to read that. The third book was Berlin, a graphic novel that I didn’t finish because it sucked; I read three chapters until I couldn’t motivate myself to pick it up off the bedstand any more and threw myself back into reading Colonel Roosevelt.

My Darling B bought a copy of this last book in Edmund Morris’s three-volume biography of one of the largest personalities that America will ever know after she heard me going gaga over the news that it had just been published. I heard the author on NPR in the wee small hours while making the morning pot of mud and otherwise trying to make myself ready to face another day in cubicle hell (if there was a god, it would not tolerate the existence of office cubicles), and even though I was still swamped in the morning’s miasma I couldn’t help babble about it. A little later in the week we saw Morris on The Daily Show, telling Jon Stewart how Roosevelt learned the most heartbreaking lesson of war when his son Archie was killed in a dogfight over Europe. I put the book on reserve the next time we went to the library. I was number three hundred-something, even though they hadn’t bought a copy yet.

Both Timber and I read the first two volumes of the biography and have passed many an evening at the dining room table debating who was a badder badass, TR or Chuck Norris; TR or John Wayne; TR or zombies. TR always wins. For Christmas I stuffing his stocking with a t-shirt with Teddy’s face on it, cropped down to the pince-nez and teeth that made him so recognizable (the post office famously delivered a letter that was addressed with nothing more than a line sketch of those almond-eyed spectacles over a picket-fence set of choppers.) He’s going to like this last volume as much as I did, when he gets the chance to read it. He’s got as much on his TBR list as I do.

But he’ll read it. I’ll make sure he does. Not that I’ll have to twist his arm much.

Colonel Roosevelt begins with Teddy’s year-long African safari, right after he left office, where he shot something like a million animals, in round numbers. After you kill a couple thousand, you can round up to a million. He loved nature, but he also loved blowing it away. He didn’t seem to have any problem with the conflict that was apparent there. Quite a lot of his life was like that.

He went on a grand tour of Europe after the safari, then went home to find his good friend, Taft, had made a mess of his presidency, so he ran against Taft in the next election and they got into a nearly life-long Adams-Jefferson estrangement that didn’t get patched up until almost the day before Roosevelt died. Besides alienating Taft, he ran as a Progressive party candidate and split the Republican vote, ironically becoming just as responsible for getting Wilson into office as Taft was, although he would hardly admit that to himself or anyone else.

Then, in his mid-fifties he went on an expedition through South America, charting an unknown river and nearly getting eaten alive by sepsis and malaria. He came back just in time to agitate for getting the US into the war. He loved war almost as much as he loved shooting big game, for much the same reasons. When the US finally got into war, all he wanted was to raise a division of cavalry and die gloriously in battle, as if that sort of thing was still done. Wilson wouldn’t hear of it, so he used what influence he still had to make sure his sons all got in and sent to the front lines as quickly as possible. It was so important for him to get into the fight, even vicariously, but he didn’t know how hard losing a son would hit him until it happened. And that was perhaps the greatest life-changing event he had since he was a sickly child.

All by itself, this is a really very amazing book. You wouldn’t have to read the first two volumes to get a feeling for many of the complex facets of Roosevelt’s personality, although it would certainly help. But all by itself, there’s quite a story here, and many chapters that are all but impossible to put down.

Colonel Roosevelt | 12:55 pm CST
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Friday, December 17th, 2010

Chatting with a coworker this morning, I had one of the strangest experiences of my life. Yes, of my life! We were discussing the busy examination schedule that day and he mentioned that he had been tapped to step in and give the tester a break now and again, and “wouldn’t you know it, I didn’t bring a book with me today.”

I facetiously offered him my copy of the Teddy Roosevelt biography I’m reading, expecting the usually momentary silence, followed by the usual polite thanks and tactful refusal I get whenever I recommend the latest really great book about dead people that I’m currently immersed in. To my stunned surprise he not only said thanks, he said in a perfect deadpan that it was his ambition to read a good biography of every one of the U.S. presidents.

Then it was my turn to respond with silence. When I found my voice again all I could think to say was, “You’re messing with me, aren’t you?”

But no, he was completely sincere, and we had an incredible conversation about our favorite authors and the earliest presidents and who was the most awesome founding father. He was sure it was Alexander Hamilton, and recommended the biography by Ron Chernow, which I think I have stashed away somewhere, still unread. I stuck up for David McCullough, and recommended 1776, his terrifically lucid account of the very iffy landmark year of the American revolution.

I’m absolutely gobsmacked at having finally met another history nerd, after so many years of wondering where all the people were who read the kooky kind of books I do. They live! And now I’ve seen on in nature. Amazing.

History Nerds | 8:35 pm CST
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Friday, November 19th, 2010

image of book The Forgotten Man

The book that I’m currently devouring is The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes, an economist who writes articles for media outlets like Bloomberg. I was a little worried this would turn out to be a great big yawner, even while it has a relevance to contemporary times so intimate that I shouldn’t even say how carnally intimate it could have been. And it probably would be a yawner to people who somehow, don’t ask me how, aren’t the least bit interested in as historic an event as the Great Depression. I know I wasn’t as recently as five years ago, but I sure am now. I used to sit through lectures in history class and wonder why we were bothering with learning about this, because people could not possibly be stupid enough to let it happen again. And now that it’s happening again and I read about the very smart people who not only watched helplessly as it unfolded the last time, but actually made it worse with their tinkering, I nod and think to myself, Yeah, okay, I can see how they could’ve done that, and yeah, I can see how they could be that dumb again. As Shlaes spins the tale, each new wave of economic depression unfolds with such inevitable horror that, even in her very bare-bones style of prose, I’m compelled to turn page after page. Reading The Forgotten Man is like watching a train wreck unfold in real time before your eyes.

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Saturday, September 11th, 2010

image of book

I’ve been lusting after a hardbound copy of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 ever since I spotted it on the shelves at Paul’s Bookstore on State Street. Alas, it was priced way over the limit of what I’ll spend on any book (five dollars) that isn’t about rockets or choo-choo trains, so I was certain I was damned to pine for it forever …

… until today! Coming back from our weekly trip to the farmer’s market, My Darling B asked if I wanted to stop at Saint Vinnie’s thrift store. I’d been there just the day before but we had the time and she wanted to stop and browse the mind-bogglingly expensive trinkets in the kitchen store across the street anyway, so I said sure, we’ll stop.

Way in the back of the used book section of the store there’s one of those racks that displays books face-front. It’s usually filled with coffee table photo collections, Anne Geddes babies and bound collections of Life magazine covers, stuff like that. I flip through the books anyway because I found a really good large-format book about steam locomotives in there once and I’m under the delusion it could happen again.

Thank goodness I check, because that’s where I found a paperback copy of Gotham today. I snatched it off the shelf without having to think twice about it, then flipped it over to see what the damages to my wallet would be. Three and a half bucks! Finds like this are what make getting out of bed early on a Saturday morning worthwhile.

image of book

And speaking of choo-choo trains and steam locomotives, I also scored a soft cover copy of the Illustrated Book of Steam and Rail! How lucky can one guy be? I already have plenty of encyclopedias and other illustrated guides to choo-choos from around the world, but this one is put together by Colin Garratt and Max Wade-Matthews. I have no idea who the second guy is, but I have several books by Colin Garratt and they all make me drool with delight, so when I saw his name on the cover of this guide I had to add it to my collection. Cost: Just a dollar. Bliss!

Gotham | 12:39 pm CST
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