What to Read Next (No. 147): the surprise of Herbert Hoover // interview with Anne Bogel

Well, it’s been a week hasn’t it? Let’s get out of modern politics, just for a minute, and do a couple other things instead. Next week we’ll take a look, through a few books, at what happened in the ‘90s to get us where we are today, both culturally and politically. It’s a remarkable tale.

But today: Among the surprisingly interesting presidents I’ve encountered in the last couple years—Garfield, Arthur, Van Buren—Herbert Hoover ranks near the top. Kenneth Whyte’s biography of him was a marvel.

I also had the chance to ask the delightful Anne Bogel a few bookish questions.

One last thing: The first newsletter for The Big Read went out last Sunday. You can read that first one for free, to get a small flavor for what we’ll be starting in January. There will be a few free editions along the way for you to check out, and if you do sign up, I’ll always refund you if you’re not happy with what you’re getting.

Okay, let’s get to it.

Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times by Kenneth Whyte

Published: 2017 | Pages: 617

Hoover, in people’s imaginations (or at least those with an interest in history), is the laughingstock of 20th century presidents. Hoover-villes, the Great Depression, the ascension of one of our greatest presidents right after he left office . . . it’s not a pretty picture on initial blush.

So, I expected reading about Hoover to be akin to reading about the history of wet paper bags. Luckily, for my sake, that wasn’t the case in the least bit. Few characters have held my attention was well as the Hoover described by Kenneth Whyte in his recent biography.

Hoover is perhaps the quintessential Midwesterner. He grew up in a very religious household but reveled in outdoor play and pursuits (he was a lifelong avid and expert fisherman), was orphaned at a somewhat early age after both parents died of illness, and ultimately became a self-made magnate in a blue collar field.

After he had earned all the money he could possibly want or need in the mining industry, WWI engulfed the world, and Hoover decided to pursue public service. Throughout the course of the war and afterwards, Bert led the administration that literally fed the war-torn continent and the hundreds of millions of refugees it created. Famine would have ravished Europe had Hoover not stepped up. He’s one of the true heroes of the Great War, which was a real surprise to learn about.

He rode that wave of success to the presidency, but then Black Tuesday sunk the nation into the Great Depression. This first CEO president believed the markets would work themselves out. At the time, it wasn’t a crazy idea; he just held onto it longer than he should have. Hoover was not a good politician, especially for the executive office. He was a great administrator, which is a very different (though not unrelated) skillset.

Whyte does not exonerate Hoover, but puts him in the context of the era better than I’ve ever encountered. I came away not quite liking Hoover, but sure not laying the ills of the Great Depression on him either. It’s more a sad headshake reaction.

Final verdict: this is a great book about a surprisingly compelling man who ended up in exactly the wrong job at exactly the wrong time.

A Few Bookish Questions With Anne Bogel

Anne, otherwise known on the internet as Modern Mrs Darcy, makes a living writing and talking about books. What a good gig! Her site has a ton of great lists and recommendations, and her podcast, What Should I Read Next, is a nice escape from the usual bookish show (which is often just an author promo for a new book). Check both out, and in the meantime, read on for a peak into her reading life.

1. As someone who writes a lot about books, I find it hard to read anything without some sort of ulterior motive; I'm always taking notes and figuring out how to convey my thoughts to my own readers. Do you find the same to be true for you? Are you ever able to escape that? 

This is so relatable! I've always loved to take notes, which helps reading with a pencil in hand not feel like "work." I'm also deliberate about the mix of books I read and when I read them, and I try to occasionally read a book I would never expect to recommend on my podcast or talk about on my blog, like one of the urban planning books I love. (Of course, I often end up talking or writing about them anyway, but tricking myself in this way helps keep the joy in my reading life.)  

2. What books have most influenced your work and life in books? Is there a book or two that finally made you say, "That's it, I have to write about books. This is what I love." 

I read Annie Dillard's The Writing Life in high school and it fundamentally shifted the way I thought about the written word. Before reading Dillard, I didn't know you could do that on the page. Several years later, I read Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris (for the first of a dozen times) and immediately realized that I needed more "books about books" in my reading life. That being said, it wasn't any book but a thousand conversations with readers that made me want to write about books myself. I enjoyed reading books for my own sake so much, but the conversations convinced me I had something to contribute.     

3. It seems your reading is pretty across the board (like me!), but are there genres/subjects you most gravitate towards? 

There's not much I'm not willing to try, reading-wise, but my favorite sub-genre is what I like to call "compulsively readable literary fiction." I love a story that probes human nature and focuses on the interior lives of its characters, while also tempting me to keep reading way past my bedtime. This isn't a typical combination, which makes finding one of these novels that much more satisfying. 

4. Are there a few books you find yourself recommending, gifting, and/or generally talking about a lot?

Oh goodness, I have a long (self-made) list of books I'm not "allowed" to discuss on What Should I Read Next because I've already mentioned them so many times—and yet I can barely stop myself! To name a few backlist titles: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell, Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, anything by Wendell Berry. But I never give my favorite books to reading friends (unless they ask, of course). I prefer to give readers a book they're longing to read, or a beautiful edition of a book I know they love.     

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

I'm currently knee-deep in winter and spring 2021 titles for our upcoming seasonal reading guides. There are so many great titles coming out in 2021, I can hardly stand it! I'll confess that when it comes to the reading life, my eyes are often bigger than my stomach. I want to read everything. I recently enjoyed a book that was a change of pace for me, Priya Parker's The Art of Gathering, and I'm about to begin Janet Skeslien Charles's novel The Paris Library, coming next February. It's a story of history, heroism, libraries, and Paris, and I have high hopes. 

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