Mostly History

“I like reading history, and actually most authors enjoy the research part because it is, after all, easier than writing.” Ken Follet

I’ve decided that I’d like to devote my reading time this summer to biography and history. In the last few years, I’ve read a lot of history, particularly “people’s history” or “revisionist” history—you know, those things that are typically left out of traditional education curricula in the United States.

I haven’t devoted specific time to it, though, except in mini-projects, such as Black History Month, etc. And I’ve read so few biographies in general that I began to think I had to change that, especially since there are so many people who interest me. I’ll be reading some literature this summer, too (novels, poetry), but for the most part, I’ve got biography and history on the agenda, and that’s certainly how the month of June turned out. Here’s where I’ve been:

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson (5 out of 5)

This is the first biography by Isaacson that I’ve read. It has certainly encouraged me to read pretty much any others that he’s written. Fortunately, he’s written a bunch on people I’m actually interested in learning more about! He’s got a kind of collection known as “the genius collection” or something like that, which includes Leonardo Da Vinci (read this month, too), Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs. He’s also got another one called The Innovators that looks fascinating, and The Code Breaker, about Jennifer Doudna, also looks great. I found Isaacson a bit repetitive in this one, but it wasn’t so much as to be distracting or annoying. What struck me most about Einstein, through this biography, is how very similar he and I are in personality and politics (leaving aside the genius part, obviously). I knew a little about Einstein’s major achievements, of course, but there is so much more to know, and Isaacson tells the story of his life very well. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately went out and purchased Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (4 out of 5)

Cover of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

We toss around this word, genius, until its definition is meaningless. I thought I knew Leonardo da Vinci. Don’t we all? We hear about him as children (in my case via The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, first, but never mind) and then throughout our lives. Most of us recognize that he was a true genius, in the sense that is actually meaningful. We’re awed by his art and inspired by his inventions. But it turns out, we knew nothing. I knew nothing. I had not a g-damn clue. I’m not sure I’ve ever finished a book, biography or otherwise, feeling so humbled. And a little bit enraged. What if Leonardo had published his papers? Who and where would we be now? A hundred years more advanced than we are? Two hundred? Goodness gracious! Isaacson’s tendency to be repetitive did get a bit distracting in this one, possibly because he does not arrange this biography in a straight chronology the way he did Einstein’s. Still, it was an edifying and exciting adventure and very much has me wanting to return to The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone’s biographical novel about Michelangelo.

A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski (4 out of 5)

I first read this one back in 2015 or so, while preparing/writing my doctoral dissertation. I’m certain I referenced it once or twice, too. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first text in the “revisionist history” series, and it’s a decent inaugural text for that project. I was and still am disappointed that Bronski ends the history at about 1990, despite the book having been published two decades after that. He explains his reasons for this, but it didn’t change my reaction. So much happened for Queer/LGBTQ+ people between 1990 and 2012, and I think it needed to be represented, too. Otherwise, though, the book is exactly what it says it will be, an illuminating and detailed history of queer people in the United States, from its founding to the AIDS crisis. Those new to LGBTQ+ history will learn a lot from reading this text, some of which will be surprising. We have always been here.  

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty (3 out of 5)

Cover of The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tray Daughetry

What a gift to witness Joan Didion grow, and grow up. She was always a great writer. She became a great person. I admire no one more than the person who can face the truth and then change because they’ve faced it. I wasn’t a big fan of the style, here, though I do understand the author had to write this without Didion’s cooperation. If you’ve read all of Didion’s work and seen her interviews, there’s not a whole lot to be gained. That said, the detail (which is fairly criticized as being overwhelming) and chronology, and the inclusion of stories happening/lives being lived in close proximity to Didion’s, while at first irritating (as overkill/unnecessary), eventually made a lot of sense. If you’re writing about a writer who is always looking for the threads, why not include the threads? I think we get closer to a truth that way. I’m not sure I can forgive the biographer for disillusioning me about Didion’s personality–oh, we’d have never been very good friends–but it’s safe to say she remains my favorite writer.

DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi (5 out of 5)

I have honestly never read anything like this. I’m not equipped to remark on it. I think I can say, though, that it is perfect for what it is. It’s inventive, powerful, and jarring. There’s visual poetry and traditional poetry, all of which tells and investigates a painful and disturbing period in American history. It challenges us to see and feel what happened, and to recognize that “we” were responsible for it. This is an incredible piece of work.

The Wrap-Up

So, that’s one history, three biographies, and one poetry collection (which is heavily steeped in history and biography). I’m also currently reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen. I might end up finishing one or both of these before June is out, but probably not in time to write anything about them, so if I decide to share some thoughts, they’ll likely come sometime in July.

Some Questions

  • Should I bring back Austen in August?
  • Should I redesign the blog, or does this theme work?
  • Should I bring back the Official TBR Pile Challenge for 2022?
  • Should I bring back any other events, or would you like to see something different (specific ideas?)
  • How are you!? What are you reading?

8 Comments on “Mostly History

  1. I’ve been reading so much interesting stuff that I haven’t been able to write about it all, which is kind of a good situation for a blogger! I think you might consider a little more color in your blog theme.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Adam! I love your new picture on Twitter. 🙂 I’m finally out of quarantine & fully vaccinated. I just returned from an awesome road trip through Tennessee & Indiana & now I have a cold, a bright red sunburn, & am covered in mosquito bites. #lifeinquarantineishealthier

    Like

    • My family (all except me) just went on a roadtrip through Tennessee and Kentucky a couple weeks ago! I hope you had a good time, despite the summery side effects!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, wonderful! It really is good to get out and make friends with the sun & mosquitoes. Had no idea what I was missing tucked inside with no one eating my flesh. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Definitely excited for Austen in August!
    I’d be happy to see the return of the TBR Pile Challenge, but my reading is going so slowly that I don’t know how much of it I would get through this year. Maybe it would help motivate me though!
    I think if you’re feeling/asking the question that your blog theme doesn’t work, then it might be time to change it. From my perspective, I like it, but the most important thing is that you are happy with it!
    I’m tired, but I’m definitely feeling in a better place lately! How are you doing?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve not participated in Austen in August before, but I’d be excited to this year if you host again. I like the current blog design, especially the font choice.

    I just read The Code Breaker, which was also my first experience with Isaacson and one which made me want to read all the rest of his books. I’ve not read much Didion, but I’ve generally had the impression she wasn’t a very nice person.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hallo, Hallo Adam,

    I agree with the person who asked, are you happy with your theme and layout!? I did a re-design myself earlier in the year as I knew 2021 would mark my 8th Year as a book blogger. I was on the fence if I should do it as I loved my original design and of course, the original designer of my logo, etc. However, it just felt like the right time to do and thereby, I also re-designed my spaces on Twitter, too. Go with your gut – fix it or leave it but do what gives you the most joy as the blogger behind the blog!! 🙂

    In regards to reading — I’ve been struck out from reading *and!* blogging due to severe weather patterns, intense lightning storms and non-connectivity. So for me, Summer has been plagued with issues beyond my control and I am hopeful, as I start to resume from whence I left off this weekend, perhaps, July shall be kinder!? Although, all across the states, everyone is dealing with something terrible climate wise — from extreme heat, to flooding rains to wildfires to natural disasters which equally makes reading a bit difficult I think in the Summer. Still, I am hopeful we all can carve out a bit of readerly blissitude even if its not as much as we’d have preferred.

    I am also wicked happy your hosting Austen in August again… and I might re-attempt the TBR Challenge if you host it… until then, I’ll keep on keeping on and hoping the heavier rains and lightning will abate. I’ve already had 9 days of steady storms this July and in June I had 29 connective days… so, the margin of probable continuance is a bit high.

    PS Issacson is a biographer Mum and I both equally are motivated to read. And, I love reading about Einstein… its a personal interest of mine and has been for a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

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