Today’s podcast, which actually came out last night, is a July 4th Address that’s hopefully still pertinent as your holiday weekend extends into its third day.
For the past few months I’ve been reading about politics and American history for the first time in my life, biographies too, and these are exactly the sorts of books that I always avoided because I thought they’d be too intimidating, that I wouldn’t know the characters, wouldn’t be familiar with the events.
What I’ve learned is that, if a non-fiction book crosses your radar, it’s probably targeted toward a large audience. Expert-level book don’t sell very well. The audience is small to begin with, and you can’t be sure you’ll get them all.
In other words, most nonfiction books are written with the intention of INTRODUCING YOU to the topic at hand, and if it’s got positive blurbs from news outlets (not so much other writers, who might be colleagues blurbing the book as a favor) then you can rest assured that, even if it’s not a GREAT book, it’s almost certainly readable. And, if it’s not the final word on the topic, it’ll at least give you a stronger grasp of the topic so that you can move on to a slightly more challenging title on the same topic.
Again, I’m fairly new to reading newspapers and engaging with politics, but last night I reached the 225-page point in Robert Caro’s 1,000-page Master of the Senate, the third volume in his Lyndon Johnson biography, and while there are passages here and there where I still get lost, and maybe two or three sentences on each page that I outright would not have understood if I’d started this book a year ago, it’s remarkable to see how accessible it is, how it’s ultimately about lonely old men who cloak themselves in the arcana of senate discourse and rule-making, but how I would have had such trouble deciphering it had I not spent a few months casually dipping a toe into political news and reading some other, simpler books on the matter.
The episode is about how it’s fairly easy to become well-studied in these topics if you just give it a little time. I even suggest an exercise for getting yourself completely caught up with the news cycle with just ten minutes of reading, every day, for a week.
What’s lacking from the episode are some recommendations.
- Joe Biden by Evan Osnos–I don’t think this book is even 200 pages, and it covers the expanse of Biden’s career, analyzing his approach to the election, and his goals as president. But since Biden’s been a senator, a vice-president,, and now president, it gives you a scattered idea of what those roles entail, the starts and stops of their power. Also Biden is a meme generator, a walking gaff–less so today than ten years ago, but it means that the book follows a colorful, somewhat aloof, likeable character (telling an audience of voters, while campaigning with Barack Obama, “I’ve known seven presidents. Three of them intimately”).
- The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple–This book is less about politics than about the people who wear themselves out as a president’s Chief of Staff. I’m obsessed with portraits of endurance, people who weather long stretches of grueling work, like marathoners and professional bodybuilders and powerlifters (I recorded a podcast about this topic a year ago: it’s a strange-sounding contention, I know, but I think these extreme athletes are basically monks; waking up three times a night to eat an egg, religious in their routines–I think their lives are fascinating to dissect, especially when you peer behind the curtain at what motivates them, which is usually some simple but powerful insecurity blended with vanity). Well, Chiefs of Staff manifest a portrait of that same rigor. 20-hour days, sometimes seven days a week. Matter of fact, few Chiefs last the duration of a president’s term. Like burning a candle at both ends, every president is resigned to the understanding that they won’t have their Chief of Staff for long. While looking at these heroically hard-working people, getting the chisme about the political and personal obstacles they’ve gotta traverse (everybody tiptoeing, for instance, around Nancy Reagan’s insistence that Ronald’s astrology chart be consulted before major decisions), the reader picks up, almost by osmosis, an intuitive understanding of how these political waters chop and plop and sway.
- Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman–If you’re interested in books in general, or in writing, then this is a WONDERFUL place to start–because yes it’s about politicians, and it’s about their books (which might or might not interest you), but mostly it’s about how reading influences a culture, how it influences a career, how an author’s books, over the course of their lifetime, reflect their personal evolution (or devolution). Fehrman takes us chronologically through the list of US presidents who’ve toiled over particularly ambitious books and, in the process, gives us a loose history of the United States presidency and, even more pointedly by the halfway point of the book, a history of the American publishing industry. The explosion of magazines at the start of the 20th century, the significance of the Sears-Roebuck Catalog, book-of-the-month club subscriptions, paperback versus hardback, the inflation of book deals and the price-manipulations of chain bookstores. It looks like a presidential history but, by the end, you’ve learned so much, in quick accessible prose, about such a spectrum of topics you almost won’t know where to shelve it.