Whether in a garret or a sitting room, readers across the centuries have found their life’s work—and altered the course of history—through books. That’s the premise underlying Nicholas Basbanes’ admirably wide excursion into literature, history and biography.
What, the author asks, does the examination of works that influenced figures as various as John Adams and Herman Melville, Abraham Lincoln and James Joyce, Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill contribute to an understanding of character?
ldquo;Books,” Basbanes writes, “not only define lives, civilizations, and collective identities, they also have the power to shape events and nudge the course of history, and they do it in countless ways.”
Searching out, for example, the sources of John Adams’ devotion to the written word, Basbanes consults the second president’s bestselling biographer, David McCullough. Since 1890, Adams’ 3,200-volume holdings have been housed in the Boston Public Library, where McCullough spent countless hours with the collection. As it turns out, Adams read everything from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War to 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith’s prediction, in Wealth of Nations, that England’s attempt to regulate trade with the American Colonies was doomed to failure. Adams’ reading, McCullough told Basbanes, was “not only broader, it was deeper, than Jefferson’s.” It is not really possible, McCullough added, “to understand any particular generation, or certainly that generation of the Founding Fathers, without reading what they read.”
While Adams had the benefit of a formal education, a surprising number of Basbanes’ subjects did not. Abraham Lincoln, who as a young man famously hungered for books, regretfully described his own disadvantages, referring to himself in the third person: “The aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year.” But as Basbanes notes, Lincoln still managed to immerse himself in Shakespeare and the Bible, absorbing the cadences that would enrich his own matchless prose.
Inventor Thomas Edison attended school for only three months, at the age of 4, only to be pronounced “addled” by a teacher and sent home. Edison’s mother, Nancy, took on his education, giving her son, at age 9, a primer describing experiments—“the first book in science I read when a boy,” he would later declare. It could well be, the author speculates, that an early exposure to books tailored to Edison’s interests allowed his genius to flower.
As for Winston Churchill, he signed on as an officer in the 4th Hussars instead of attending university. Posted to India at 22 in 1896, he found himself with time on his hands and decided to remedy his educational deficiencies by embarking on a regimen that more than equaled the reading he would have completed at Cambridge or Oxford. He later described his India interlude as “the university of my life.” It was Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that captured his imagination: “All through the long glistening middle hours of the Indian day...I devoured Gibbon,” he would recall, adding, “I...enjoyed it all.”
Ultimately, the author argues, reading habits transcend the confines of choice, reflecting “deepest interests and predilections, even...dreams, needs...anxieties.” Along with McCullough, Basbanes believes that one is what one reads.