Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
Posts tagged "Reading"
I am writing all the time. I am writing when I am flying in a plane. I don’t mean literally writing; I am thinking about it. People often say to me, ‘How much of your time do you spend writing and how much of your time do you spend doing research?’ It is a great question, but no one ever says, ‘How much of your time do you spend thinking?’ That is probably the most important part of it — just thinking about it, thinking about what you have read, what you need to read, what you need to think more about. Putting things out literally on the table and looking at them. Putting a reproduction of a painting and really looking at that painting and thinking about that painting or the setting. Where things happened is very important to me. This whole book that I have just written [“The Greater Journey”] is set in Paris. Another book I wrote [“The Great Bridge”] was set in Brooklyn. Another was set in Panama [“The Path Between the Seas”]. Much of several books have been set here in Washington. I believe that the setting has great effect on the way things happened, the way things went. The setting is part of history, just as the ‘who’ is part of the why and so I really have to soak up the setting.
Historian David McCullough, explaining his writing process on CSPAN’s Q&A, May 2011
Asker oceanicsteam Asks:
If you took a rough estimate, how many books do you think you've read over your life? Also do you ever feel a twinge of sadness that even if we live to 115 there's just not enough time to read everything we want to read?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

To answer your last question first, yes, I definitely get bummed to realize that I’ll never get to read everything I want to read.  Hell, I go crazy looking around my apartment at my piles of books and trying to find enough hours that I can put into reading so I can get through the books I already have!

As for the first question, wow, that’s really tough to figure out.  I’m just going to try to estimate the number of books that I’ve read since I was 18 (I’m 34 now).  The number of books that I’ve been able to read each year has increased since I was 18, particularly in the past four years because reading and reviewing books is part of my job, so I can justify doing nothing but reading for most of the day.  I’d say that I’ve read an average of 250 books over the past four years, so that’s 1,000.  From 25-30, I probably read 175 books a year on average, so that’s 875,  From 18-25, I probably read about 150 books a year, so that’s 1,050.  So, adding it up — and again, this is a total guesstimate, some years were probably quite a bit more or less — that’s 2,925 books since I was 18.  

I have no idea how accurate that might be, but around 3,000 books does sound about right if I were to estimate how many books I actually have and how many of those I have read.  In totally unrelated news, I have not had very many successful personal relationships between the ages of 18-34.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Are there any great monthly or weekly magazines/newspapers? I was thinking about buying a subscription to the Atlantic or Harper's monthly, but I'm sure there might be something great out there. Also, out of curiosity, what newspapers/magazines do you read?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

I scan a bunch of different newspapers online every day, mainly The New York Times, Washington Post, Sacramento Bee, the Sacramento News & Review, Osservatore Romano, and, to a lesser extent, the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle.

With magazines, I don’t subscribe to as many as I used to because the major stories are normally accessible online. There are three magazines in particular that I haven’t been able to give up yet: The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and Esquire. If I were only able to subscribe to one, it would be The Atlantic, so I definitely recommend it. I’ve been meaning to re-up my subscription to Sactown Magazine, too, but that’s more of a hometown interest than something that has general appeal to most of my readers.

A few more magazines that I read frequently but no longer have subscriptions to are The New Republic, The Economist, Smithsonian Magazine, American Scholar, Rolling Stone, and the Paris Review. And, online, I try to keep up to date on New York Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, the relatively new (and really good) Politico Magazine, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug the online publication that I write for, AND Magazine.

I’m sure I missed a publication that I frequently read, but these are all important components of my daily/weekly/monthly reading material.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
who are you rooting for in the game
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

I’m actually not even watching the Super Bowl. I don’t have any problem with the Seahawks or Broncos; I just have no real interest in watching the game this year. I’ll be happy for either team and their fans if they win.

I actually have far more important work to focus on tonight. I have lots of reading to do and decided to use my time wisely and make sure I’m not wasting the hours with idle material. So, I set aside thick books on subjects like Machiavelli, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Napoleon, Cuban military influence in Africa, and 19th century British invasions of Afghanistan. These books remain high on my reading list and I’ll keep the piles nearby.

But I must recognize my priorities, and that’s exactly what I have done. So, first and foremost, before diving into my other studies, I must focus on completing the task at hand. I must work my way through what is obviously most important.

I must spend my evening reading “Calvin and Hobbes”.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
you mentioned that you're reading a sam sheppard book and you've brought him up in the past. i've never read his work and am wondering what the appeal is to you since you don't seem to read much fiction?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Sam Shepard is a national treasure.  I know that there are pockets of the literary world that appreciate him, but I still think he is vastly underappreciated overall.  If we take away his very good acting career, he’s still the greatest living American playwright and, in my opinion, the very best when it comes to crafting a short story that grips you, immediately means something, and leaves you wanting more-and-more.  I don’t know any writer — dead or alive — who creates nameless, faceless characters out of thin air and makes you care about them within a few very short paragraphs before allowing them to vanish (and being okay with it — he is never, ever greedy with his stories and characters, he is restrained almost to the point of stinginess). 

As it might be clear from the type of writing that I specialize in, I don’t spend a whole lot of time reading fiction.  I’m more comfortable with non-fiction (particularly when it comes to my own writing), and the main reason for that is because it is real.  I can relate to it so much better because when something is real, I can feel it.  I have a very difficult time when it comes to being touched by fiction.

And the truth is that I always want to feel something.  Personally, I have a difficult time expressing my feelings and accessing my feelings.  Non-fiction — history — makes it easy because I don’t have to spend a lot of time putting my imagination into gear in hopes of triggering certain emotions.  With history, they are often already on the surface — I know where I’m supposed to be going, and that makes it easier to get there.

But when I read Sam Shepard, his words — often simple, unadorned phrases — provoke instinctive, visceral feelings.  I can’t tell if Shepard’s writing is connecting with something deep inside of me, or if his stark language is scalding the very surface of my skin.  Whatever it is, I feel it.  It doesn’t matter how austere the prose, how alien the setting, how foreign the characters, I always feel what Sam Shepard writes, and I can’t say that about any other writer that I have ever read.  I read to learn, but we also all read to feel.  Sam Shepard’s stories don’t always make me smile, but I feel every single piece and they resonate with me long after I close his books.

Decades from now, when I am old(er) and gray(er) and talking about my favorite writers, I’ll be able to say that I read the collected works of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and Ambrose Bierce, or learned the poetry of Pablo Neruda — legendary writers who died before I was even born.  I’ll be able to mention that due to my age I caught the tail-end of the careers of Hunter S. Thompson, Gabriel García Márquez, or Yevgeny Yevtushenko — appreciating them once they were already established as literary giants but appreciating no less than what they rightly deserved.  And all of that will be wonderful.  But then I’ll be able to mention that I bought Sam Shepard’s books as they were released — maybe not Hawk Moon, Motel Chronicles, or Fool For Love because I was too young, but that I went to the bookstore (I’ll probably have to explain what that was) and picked up The Unseen Hand and Other Plays, Cruising Paradise, Great Dream of Heaven, and Day Out of Days (and hopefully a few more collections of stories before all is said and done).  I’ll be able to brag that I bought them on the day of the release and pull out my somewhat worn (but hopefully in good condition) first edition copies of these Sam Shepard collections, and someone will look at them with wonder and awe, just like I’d look at first edition copies of The Sun Also Rises or Tortilla Flat or The Beautiful and Damned if someone pulled them out today.

Sam Shepard is on the same level as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, or HST.  The only difference is that Shepard is more versatile as an artist.  Those who don’t know his work might scoff at the comparisons; those who do know his work don’t need any convincing.  But I know one thing for sure — Sam Shepard takes an art form and somehow uses it to create an emotion.

If the articles that I’ve read so far are an indication of what we have to look forward to with Politico Magazine, we have ourselves one hell of a new treasure trove of political reporting.

For my fellow political junkies, you’ll want to start your day out with these in particular:

Cover Story: Locked in the Cabinet: The Worst Job in Barack Obama’s Washington by Glenn Thrush
Oral History: The War Within: Inside the Making of the Shutdown by Robert Draper
Politico Mag Profile: Get Mitch: How the Embattled Senate Minority Leader Explains America’s Political Gridlock by Jason Zengerle
War Room: Obama vs. the Generals by Rosa Brooks

This is top-notch political journalism by some of the best in the business.  If this is a subject that interests you, these stories should be the first things you read this morning.  Damn good work all-around.  Politico Magazine will be publishing stories daily (longer, more in-depth pieces than what is usually found on, a print edition six times a year, and, is conveniently gathering each week’s best stories in an e-mail newsletter called The Friday Cover, which you can subscribe to for free right here (I didn’t hesitate to do so).   

Asker Anonymous Asks:
What are the last 5 books you read?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

The last five books that I have finished are:

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster)

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson (PublicAffairs)

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by Christian Caryl (Basic Books)

Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History by Andrew Carroll (Crown Archetype)

Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (Doubleday)

Currently reading:

Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power by Kevin Peraino (Crown)

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Since you get books sent to you for free because of your magazine reviews and articles and probably never run out of new things to read---are there any authors that you just 'have' to read when they publish a new book
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Yes, and one thing that I always make an effort to do is support the authors that I really enjoy by going out and buying their books — even if the publisher sends me a review copy.  In those cases, I just feel like I owe the author something because I appreciate their work.  Sure, it probably makes little-to-no appreciable contribution to their overall earnings, but it’s just something that I feel good for doing.

I don’t do that for all authors, of course, but I almost always do go out and eventually buy a copy (even if I already have that free review copy) from my favorite writers such as:

•Robert Caro
•Bob Greene
•Bob Woodward
•Edmund Morris
•Doris Kearns Goodwin
•David McCullough
•David Pietrusza
•Erik Larson
•Sam Shepard
•Simon Winchester
•Robert Dallek

Those are just the authors that immediately come to mind, but I definitely try to support my favorite authors, no matter if I get free copies or not. 

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Can you recommend any books on Alexander Hamilton on his life, economic philosophy, etc? I've read Ron Chernow's book on him last christmas and he really became a personal hero for me and after I've read about other significant people in US history and US history books I'd really like to read another about him.
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

You’re off to a good start because I think that Chernow’s book is probably the very best biography of Alexander Hamilton that you will find.  Willard Sterne Randall (Alexander Hamilton: A Life) and Richard Brookhiser (Alexander Hamilton, American) are top-notch historians of the Revolution and Founding Fathers, so they also have written solid biographies of Hamilton, but Chernow’s is the cream of the crop.  While they aren’t completely focused on Hamilton, there is also great insight in Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Thomas Fleming’s Duel.

If you are wanting to dig a little deeper into Hamilton’s political philosophy and his role is shaping the American government, there is a book edited by Douglas Ambrose and Robert W. T. Martin called The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father that you may want to check out.

However, the very best source for Hamilton’s political thought would be The Federalist Papers.  While they were all published under the pseudonym “Publius”, it’s easy to find editions which identify whether you’re reading an essay by Hamilton, James Madison, or John Jay.  The vast majority of the essays were written by Hamilton.  I think Jay wrote just 5 out of the 85 essays and Hamilton wrote almost twice as many as Madison (Hamilton and Madison also teamed up on 2 or 3 of the essays).  You can get a good understanding of Hamilton’s political philosophy and his ultimate influence on the government that was formed through The Federalist Papers.  Plus, you can easily find them for free online.

Let’s see…on average, I usually read 2-to-4 books a week.  If I’m really on top of things, I can get through 6 or 7 in a week.  

So, I’d say that I read about 200 books each year — give or take a dozen or so.  One of these years, I’m going to make an effort to keep track of every book I read during a year.  I always mean to do that.

The only specific article that I make sure to read everyday is Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook, which I subscribe to via the Politico website so that I get it in my e-mail first thing every morning.  Allen’s column is the best daily political column in the country, gives a good sense of the day’s big stories and what to expect, and is invaluable for political junkies and observers of the Presidency.

Other than that, I can’t think of anyone who I make sure to read daily.  I stop in and check out the websites of various news sources throughout the day, but I would imagine that most people do that.  During the NFL season, I always read Peter King’s MMQB column from Sports Illustrated every Monday, but don’t usually follow it during the offseason although he does keep writing it year-round.  Whenever Bill Simmons writes a new column at Grantland, I make sure to read it, but he’s not even a lock to write a column every week nowadays let alone daily.  I also try to read most of The Masked Man/David Shoemaker’s articles on Grantland.

Other than that, I’m usually down to check out any solid, longform article that people think I might like.  I am a hopeless hoarder of articles saved on aggregators like Longreads,, GiveMeSomethingToRead, ByLiner, etc.  Much like my personal library here in my apartment, I probably have more reading material stashed away online than I’ll ever be able to catch up with, but I love taking a few hours to read through articles that I’ve saved.

If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or, as it were, fondle them — peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on their shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that if you do not know what is in them, you will at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances.

Winston Churchill

The last question about my books motivated me to share this quote of Churchill’s about books, which is one of my favorite quotes ever.

The weekend is almost here, and with it comes two, brand-new, feature-length articles from me in AND Magazine

Both articles will spend time on AND Magazine's cover page this weekend, but my loyal followers here on Dead Presidents don’t have to wait.  You can check them out now, in their entirety.

¿Viva La Revolucíon? looks at the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, its impact on his country, and Chávez’s influence on Latin America and the regional leaders who came to power during (and often because of) the Chávez era.  ¿Viva La Revolucíon? also examines the life and legacy of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution and Hugo Chávez’s relation to that movement as well as his connection to one of the Revolution’s enduring symbols, Ché Guevara.

In my other new article, Sede Vacante: Historic Happenings at the Vatican, I focus on the Papacy in transition following the surprising and extraordinarily rare resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and write about what we might be able to expect, from a historian’s point-of-view, as the College of Cardinals meets in a Conclave to elect a new Pope under almost unprecedented circumstances — a perfect storm of uncertainty in which a Papal vacancy, scandals in the Church, a shift in worldwide Catholic demographics, and a Conclave held in the wake of a voluntary resignation rather than under the solemnity and sadness of a Pope’s death may result in a far more political process (at least openly) than usual.

Check my articles out now, before they even hit the cover page at AND Magazine!  And, if you do read ¿Viva La Revolucíon? or Sede Vacante, please take a moment to click the Facebook “like” button near the top of each page.  In fact, even if you don’t read the articles, just go to the page and click that “like” button because it helps me a whole lot. Seriously, you don’t even have to read the articles right now, just go to those links and click the Facebook “like” button and I’ll be your friend in real-life, be the godfather to your children, hide your murder weapon like Robert Kardashian (allegedly) if you pull an O.J. Simpson (allegedly)…whatever you need, I’m there if the Faceboook “likes” on each article gets over 100, okay?  Cool.