What to Read Next (No. 145): sick presidents // an interview with Brad Stulberg

I didn’t plan it this way. I put a hold on The President Is a Sick Man in mid-September and then on October 3rd, President Trump tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a crazy couple weeks of battle between the media, the White House, and Walter Reed Medical Center. It was as uncannily timed read, to say the least.

I also finished a long biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who went to great lengths throughout his entire career to hide not only the effects of polio, but his numerous illnesses beyond that.

That’s two more presidents down this week, which means I only have a handful left (I don’t have anyone done between Taft and FDR, and I also need to get to Clinton, Bush II, and Trump).

Finally, I had the chance to interview author Brad Stulberg about some of the books he’s into.

Let’s do it.

The President Is a Sick Man by Matthew Algeo

Published: 2011 | Pages: 228

“By insisting on total secrecy, the president, not his doctors, dictated his course of treatment.”

I was hoping this book would follow along in the vein of Candice Millard’s books — part biography, part mystery and thriller, compulsively readable. And for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. (Really, it’s unfair to compare anyone to Candice.)

These sorts of books tend to offer a few things: a broad (and short) biographical portrait, a look at the larger context of the era and the issues dominating the cultural conversation, and a primary story zeroed in on a narrow but instructive time period in the figure’s life.

While obviously not serving as a full-scale biography, you can learn a lot from these shorter, more focused books — this type of narrative can reveal far more than a totally zoomed out portrait.

Anyways . . . on to Grover. His career itself is interesting in that he was president twice, but non-consecutively. So he’s POTUS #22 and #24. His politics were pretty reprehensible (to me), and his personal life was atrocious. But perhaps the most intriguing story of Grover’s life was the secret surgery he had on the open sea to remove a tumor from his mouth. Then, when journalists found out, Cleveland did what he could to ruin their careers.

Algeo weaves a fascinating tale not only of Grover’s surgery, but also the history of presidential illnesses swept under the rug, what surgery/cancer was like back then (far more harrowing than now), and why it all matters today. The parallels were obvious and head-shaking; presidents have always and will always try to keep their health under wraps. The President Is a Sick Man is a fun, short, highly recommended book.

A Few Bookish Questions With Brad Stulberg

As with many of the folks you see in this newsletter, I first met Brad when he appeared on the Art of Manliness podcast. I get a lot of performance/productivity books sent my way and very few make the cut for the podcast; Brad and Steve Magness’s Peak Performance cut through the clutter and made a big impression on me. Ditto for their follow-up, The Passion Paradox.

1. You write in the wellness/performance space. What books and/or writers have most shaped your thinking in that subject area?

I've been told I'm pretty unconventional here. I am looking for timeless truths, not the latest and greatest "hack" or trend. There are so many great writers and books that have influenced me. It's hard to pick just a few. But if I had to, I'd go with the following. I think these writers and books are top of mind for me because they've really played a big part in my thinking for my forthcoming book, The Practice of Groundedness: Overcoming Heroic Individualism to Attain Authentic Success.

Writers: George Leonard, Erich Fromm, Robert Pirsig, Steven Hayes, David Whyte, Tara Brach, Mark Epstein, Alan Watts.

Books: Crossing the Unknown Sea (Whyte); To Have or To Be, The Art of Loving, Escape From Freedom (all Fromm); Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila (both Pirsig); A Liberated Mind (Hayes); Mastery and The Way of Aikido (both Leonard), Radical Acceptance (Brach); Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart (both Epstein); The Wisdom of Insecurity (Watts).

2. I imagine most of what you read is non-fiction — lots of studies and research papers and science-y things. What do you read when you need an escape? Any go-to comfort authors/genres? 

I enjoy poetry. Mary Oliver, Rumi, and Rilke are three of my favorites. I also like novels with a capital N. The long, built out stuff. Deacon King Kong by James Mcbride was such a fun read this year. As was A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. My favorite novels: The Corrections (Franzen; lucky if you get to read for the first time; it's so much fun); Middlesex (Eugenides); There There (Tommy Orange). My two top novels of all time, for those with the time and energy: Middlemarch (Elliot) and War and Peace (Tolstoy) but those are less escape and more work, but my gosh are they good books that contain so much wisdom and truth.

3. Has 2020 changed how you read? Either in how you read or what you read?

More poetry. I get enough of the timely stuff from the too many times a day I check news websites. So I think what's going on is my brain (or spirit) is balancing it out my pushing me to read poetry. 

4. Do you have any books you find yourself recommending, gifting, or generally just talking a lot about? 

All of the above! I freaking love books so much they are such a part of my life. Not a day goes by where I don't think about at least one (and generally more than one) of the books above.

5. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list?

Now: Trust by Pete Buttigieg and The Sane Society by Fromm (and then poetry in the cracks). My friend Ryan's book, Lives of the Stoics, is next in my queue. I'm also reading How to Raise the Perfect Dog by Cesar Milan, since we're about to welcome a four-legged wolf-dog (really: just a German Shepherd) into the family in the coming weeks! 

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek

Published: 2017 | Pages: 627

There’s a ton of literature on FDR, much of it focused on the war years, but with plenty of options for cradle-to-grave bios too. So the process for choosing one came down to having one on my shelf that a publisher sent my way a few years ago. I really enjoyed Dallek’s bio of JFK, so I was eager to jump into this one too.

Over the course of 600+ pages, the reader is treated to a blow-by-blow account of how Franklin navigated his complicated life and presidency. Though his bout with polio is pretty well known, I’m not sure I realized it came so late in life — he was 39 when he lost the use of his legs. And then went on to the most grueling presidency in our nation’s history. Taken alone, that part of FDR’s story is remarkable. As Dallek notes, even though Franklin was always calculating the politics of any big decision, he did the right things during the Depression and WWII and fundamentally changed the course of American history.

His personal life left me a little soured (and made me want to read more about Eleanor) and Executive Order 9066 was egregious to say the least, but it’s hard not to admire FDR’s leadership in the face of two great national crises.

Dallek oddly relays too many polling and public opinion numbers throughout the book, but that’s my only complaint. For a one-stop-shop on FDR, this book is a great place to turn to. I can’t wait to read more on POTUS (and FLOTUS!) #32.

That’s all for me this week. Let me know what you’re reading — I’d love to hear!