What to Read Next (No. 167): another Lincoln edition

What a week it’s been. On Wednesday, I wrote a bit about the Boulder shooting in an email that went out to premium subscribers. The shooter lived just a couple miles from us here in the north metro suburb of Arvada. His family owns a restaurant in a strip mall that’s within walking distance of our house, in the same complex as a coffee shop I frequent. Why he didn’t go into our neighborhood grocery store, which is also his neighborhood grocery store, is the question on our community’s mind right now.

Amidst that confusion and grief, though, there are still the books. (And March Madness! I was thrilled to see my alma mater, Drake U, play a couple games.) As I wrote last week, books can provide comfort and escape in a time when those things are so crucially needed.

And so this newsletter keeps chugging along.

In December 2019, I sent out a Lincoln-themed email. Of all the presidents, he was the one who most captured my attention, so I haven’t stopped reading about him. Here’s two more Lincoln books I’ve recently finished that are worthy of sharing with you.

First, some links:

These Are a Few of My Favorite Links

This has become a regular and very popular feature for premium subscribers. Today, I’m sharing it in this space as a little sneak peak of just one of the benefits of becoming a paid member. For $5/month, you’ll get this link round-up each week, more bookish lists and content, a very cool bookmark which is in production right now, and more.

  • The Age Most People Stop Buying IKEA Furniture. This made me laugh. How true.

  • The American Obsession with Lawns. This one made me laugh too. Our HOA requires grass to be green and trim, which annoys the heck out of me in this desert state that we live in. And yet, I shake my fist at the lawns in our neighborhood that aren’t trim and tidy.

  • The Boredom and the Fear of Grief. What CS Lewis’ book A Grief Observed can tell us about the weird grief of the previous year.

  • Here’s 10,000 Hours. Don’t Spend It All In One Place. This is a good piece about the risks of hyper-specialization and the perhaps surprising benefits of a multi-pronged career. Great quote here: “‘He who follows two hares catches neither.’ Perhaps that’s so, but he who chases two hares can at least have a great time trying.”

  • For Creators, Everything Is for Sale. This legit reads like an article out of a futurist, dystopian novel. One 25-year-old said, “Creators are burning out, but their fans want more and more. By monetizing each aspect of their life, they can extract value from everyday interactions.” Wow. To be clear, I will not be monetizing my everyday choices.

  • An Interview With Filmmaker Ken Burns. Burns is an American treasure. He has a new Hemingway film coming soon and shares why he maintains an optimistic vision of America.

A. Lincoln by Ronald White

Published: 2007 | Pages: 679

I’ve not done it, but I can pretty safely assume that it’s really hard to write an in-depth, full-scale, 700-page biography. To do so with a fluid, readable, often inspiring and emotional narrative is a feat that even fewer biographers can pull off. Ron White has impressively done just that in A. Lincoln.

I’ve read a lot of Lincoln books (and there’s plenty more sitting in piles on the floor of my office) and I can pretty easily say that White’s 2009 book is the best of the bunch. David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln is often considered the leader of the pack, but it’s often dry. Lincoln comes across as a somewhat statuesque character; it lacks feeling.

The best biographies, in my opinion, not only convey facts in an organized way, but provide a depth of emotion that allows you to feel for the subject in some way—even if the person is contemptible (like Lyndon Johnson in Robert Caro’s famous series). What Ron White so magnificently does here is capture Lincoln’s utter humanity and decency. The era comes alive and we see Lincoln as the impoverished young boy, the frontier lawyer, the budding and pragmatic politician, the surprise president, the wartime leader, the reluctant abolitionist. Through it all, we see how Lincoln evolved, how he educated himself, how he stayed humble in the midst of having more power than any other man in America, and so much more.

At the end, while reading about that infamous night at the theater, White had me in tears. I obviously knew the ending of Lincoln’s story, but White made him come alive so vividly that I was surprisingly emotional when it came to our 16th president’s untimely death.

White doesn’t explicitly make the case for Lincoln as our greatest president, but it’s hard to come away from this book without holding that (correct!) opinion.

A. Lincoln immediately found its way to my top few favorite presidential biographies. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Emancipator and the Zealot: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom by H. W. Brands

Published: 2020 | Pages: 401

“Lincoln wasn’t perfect, but he was perfectly suited to his task.”

Brands started this book with a question that can speak to today’s society just as well as that of the mid-1800s: How does a good man challenge a great evil? Particularly for his subjects and the time period of focus in the book: What was a moral man’s obligation when faced with an immoral institution like slavery?

Lincoln’s relationship to slavery has been subject to plenty of study—both on its own and as part of almost every major biography of the last couple decades. Brands does something unique in his newest book by comparing Lincoln’s moderate, slow-moving path towards emancipation with that of John Brown’s extremist route that ended with his infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry and ultimately his execution by hanging at the hands of the federal government.

Brands goes back and forth between Lincoln and Brown, spending a few chapters at a time on each character. Brown was always a bit eccentric and kooky, but his message of full and immediate emancipation resonated deeply with the abolitionists of the era.

Lincoln was always more of a pragmatist. He seemed to know that abolition must be a more gradual, political endeavor. There was no way to free the slaves without the government’s involvement.

As Brands succinctly notes, “John Brown chose the path of violence, Lincoln of politics.” And yet, the real “answer” is far more complex than just that: both of those paths ultimately led to the Civil War, which was both unconscionably violent and inherently political.

I tend to have a pretty lukewarm relationship with Brands’ books, but The Zealot and the Emancipator is one that I really enjoyed. There are scholarly works available on Lincoln’s attitude toward slavery, but this narrative-driven book gets the job done for the vast majority of readers (myself included). You’ll also learn about John Brown, whose name you might recognize but perhaps not much more than that. His life and the actions that led to his death were of greater consequence than most Americans realize.

Thanks for the time and inbox space, as always. I’d love to hear what you’re reading, too! If you enjoy the newsletter, I hope you’ll consider subscribing as a premium member: 

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Have a great weekend everyone!