By Rima Walker
Did you know that if you climb the stairway in the library there is a second floor filled with a great deal of nonfiction on all kinds of subjects such as local history, American, European and Asian history, travel to exotic and not so exotic places, biography, religion, drama, poetry, fine literature and so much more?
I’ve always thought of myself as a fiction reader with the occasional dip into a good biography, but then, as Barbara Mellon and I worked on cataloging all of the books in the library, I got to the second floor and discovered this treasure trove of fascinating stuff to read and promised myself I would raid the sections that interest me. I have always been fascinated by the English Plantagenet and Tudor royals and loved reading about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry VIII and his six wives and children, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward. But they always made me feel I was reading fiction, containing as they do the elements of good juicy novels: love, hate, war, mystery, passion, desire, politics, betrayals, murders, loyalty, greed, to name just a few of the things I look for in any good book.
So that being said, I decided to look over some of the history of my own country, starting with the American Revolution and working my way through to the people who emerged from that time and who founded a nation, who were every bit as compelling as any European king. From their great minds they fashioned a political system, a legal system, and a way of life very different from their European equivalents, despite the fact that some thought George Washington should be America’s king. He wasn’t a king; he was our first President. And from the Founding Fathers there emerged ambassadors to European courts, law makers, bankers who created financial institutions. The most fascinating of them all was Benjamin Franklin. In a biography called Benjamin Franklin–An American Life, Walter Isaacson reveals Franklin’s many attributes and talents. He lived to be 84 years old, and in that time he was a true Renaissance man: “scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer” and a terrific kite flier who proved that lightning and electricity were very closely related. He was also involved with the creation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. We are lucky to have a few other biographies about Franklin, one of which is Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, a beautiful volume of essays by Franklin scholars with wonderful illustrations and maps. The First American by H.W. Brands is a thorough study of Franklin’s life and times. And, not least of all, is the very modest 165 page Autobiography that discusses his highlights and accomplishments as Franklin himself saw them.
Don’t ignore our many other books on the Revolution itself, such as David McCullough’s 1776, books about Paul Revere, The First Salute by Barbara Tuchman, and other historical people. To name a few: Washington’s Lady by Elswyth Thire; Dearest Friend by Lynn Withey about Abigail Adams, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, John Adams by David McCullough, Thomas Jefferson by Fawn M. Brodie, An American Family: The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed about Jefferson’s slave mistress who bore him seven children. Another interesting one is called Petticoat Patriots of the American Revolution by Edith Patterson Meyer about the women of the era, some are famous like Betsy Ross and some are not household names but played important roles through the Revolution and after.
Suffice it to say, there are four bookcases filled with works on American history that will bring you up to the present ranging from social writings like Tom Brokaw’s Boom! and David Halberstam’s The Fifties, to biographies of people whose politics and policies have impacted our own lives–Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and many others. There is also an extensive collection about John Kennedy’s time in the White House, his family, his policies, and his assassination.
As you work your way over to the American History section, you will no doubt be delayed as writings on other subjects that interest you sort of quietly yell out to you (this is a library after all) or catch your eye. You may never make it to George Washington, or at least not for a very long time. ~