Remedial Book Notes: Volume 1- Primary American Character


Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. (1)

While fully acknowledging the perhaps inappropriate usurpation of the Book Notes franchise here at Redstate, my intention over the next several months is to tackle a somewhat ambitious exercise (for me, anyway) and self-educational experience through a comparative evaluation of three distinguished men in American history and their stories in their own words.  The selected subjects are:

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas (1948-    )

Assuredly, the grouping of two or even all three of these notable characters is hardly a novel idea and your humble tour guide will surely not break any new literary or historical ground.  That is really not the point.

Through public primary and secondary education, a technical college degree program, and in reading over one hundred and fifteen overwhelmingly non-fiction books over the last ten years (I didn’t become a real reader until my early 30s), the first two gentlemen have made only secondary character appearances or very brief token features in my learning experiences.  In addition, Book Notes entries seem to have covered Americanism and conservatism (and its roots) as well as a touch of Christianity fairly well through many of the (generally accepted) modern classics.  In taking a more scenic route,  I have little doubt that a thorough review of this short grouping of books will provide valuable perspective and understanding to my knowledge base and I suspect (or at least I hope) it may prove at least somewhat enlightening to those here who choose to tag along and/or participate.  It may even generate enough interest with a real talented and enterprising person or group for a more sustained Book Notes revival.

My intent going in is to read all three at the same time attempting to keep similar ages/periods of each man’s life somewhat in parallel as best I can.  This may change if it becomes too complicated or confusing.  I expect to explore the varied degrees of individualism, conservatism, and Americanism to the extent and form that they are present with each man and his life.  I have evolved into an extensive highlighter (or underliner) so expect many quotes while I attempt to add intelligent commentary as best I can.

Consider yourself invited to grab a copy of one or more of these books and play along.  If all goes according to plan, please tune in next month for the first entry…

An Ntrepid Joint
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You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read. (2)

I miss andyd’s weekly Book Notes posts.

I cannot say that I am really the book club type.  I do not read fast and family activities generally keep me from making consistent progress so I have become more of a reading loner…reading exactly what I want, whenever I can find the time, and discussing the pertinent topics with willing coworkers and/or captive audiences at lunch during the workweek and yes, even over the dinner table at home. (Say a special prayer for my wife.)   So when andyd offered up the reins to Book Notes, I did consider it for about a nanosecond before coming to my senses.  And to be honest, I hesitate to sully the moniker here…I certainly don’t pretend to offer up the quality posting already linked to that tag.   What follows is a (probably one time) good faith experiment and, as with most everything I post at Redstate, the true value will show up in the comment section.

For several years now I have kept a wish list of books on Amazon.com.  I constantly add books and authors that spark my interest from various sources and have a standing order (yea, right) for my wife to pick anything off the list if she needs to push an order over $25 to get free shipping.  (Yes, I am that cheap.)  Just over a year ago, one of these somewhat random picks left me with a fresh copy of Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens as we set off on our family (driving) vacation.  As I worked my way through it I realized that I should actually really read Orwell…other than just Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four…and then reread Hitchens’ take.  So between August and December last year I consumed the primary George Orwell (3) in order with only an additional Hitchens contribution (Letters to a Young Contrarian) mixed in around the mid-way point…and it was an incredibly enlightening journey.  Additionally, it was the most thorough and sustained reading venture I have managed in my forty-plus years (with the possible exception of struggling through Stephan Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science and our first-born’s terrible-twos at the same time).

That Orwell/Hitchens “experience…more than 2,600 pages through eleven books (six fiction/fictionalized and five non-fiction) written over a span of about 75 years…covered so many interrelated subjects, themes, and experiences from the perspective of two different minds from two different times.  That kind of intensive back-to-back “study” became addictive…I couldn’t wait to finish one and move on to the next…and proved to be a very rich education for a late blooming, slow reading, amateur blogger like me. (Interestingly, this inadvertently resulted in a sort of advanced course in the “Fifteen Hundred Page Doctrine” that I discussed last year (4).)  It is that experience that now leads to something else a little different, a little deeper, and hopefully a little more rewarding than just another excellent book.

Last week I added the Booker T. Washington book to my Amazon list that already contained the other two listed above and quickly noticed that I could get all three for under $30 and free shipping. (The Thomas book was a specially priced hardcover – BONUS.)  I am now awaiting delivery.

So here I sit with sufficiently inexpensive books on the way and a general theme…why not a Book Notes mini-series?  As I said above, I am obviously not the first…or the smartest…to ever group these three individuals for a comparative study but I may be the first to combine purely personal interest and extreme thrift to get here.  (I did perform an internet search on all three names and scanned a few entries just to gain a sense of how extensive the subject had been covered.  I don’t expect to search anymore until I’ve had a chance to read the books and comment on my own.)

So where is this going?  I admit up front that I know embarrassingly little about Mr. Douglass, next to nothing of Mr. Washington (I remember his repeated appearances in Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris a few years back), and know Mr. Thomas only through following current events to various degrees over the last couple of decades.  Beyond that…and the general sense that these people reached their respective levels of success for a reason…I cannot even be sure the title I selected above for this volume is accurate and appropriate. Of course, reading about them in their own words probably will not tarnish this view too much but maybe some good old Redstate discussion will add the proper perspective.

Your attention as well as any comments, suggestions, advice, and even criticism along the way will be greatly appreciated.

Proud Redstate Member since April 2006…?

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(1) Barbara W. Tuchman as quoted by Mark DeMoss in Chapter 22 of The Little Red Book of Wisdom.

(2) Charles “Tremendous” Jones as quoted by Mark DeMoss in Chapter 22 of The Little Red Book of Wisdom.

(3) Primary George Orwell according to me: (1) Down and Out in Paris and London, (2) Burmese Days, (3) A Clergyman’s Daughter, (4) Keep the Aspidistra Flying, (5) The Road to Wigan Pier, (6) Homage to Catalonia, (7) Coming Up for Air, (8) Animal Farm, and (9) Nineteen Eighty-Four.

(4) Wisdom Through the “Fifteen Hundred Page” Doctrine, ntrepid at Redstate http://www.redstate.com/ntrepid/2010/04/04/wisdom-through-the-%e2%80%9cfifteen-hundred-page%e2%80%9d-doctrine/