Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike celebrate Presidents’ Day by discussing five books about America’s chief executives.
Discussed in this episode: Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier President by Harry J. Sievers, dad corpses, electrophobia, Forty-Two Years in the White House by Irwin (Ike) Hoover, the Taft/bathtub myth, Theodore Roosevelt, The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1 by Robert A. Caro, Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves, bribery, Roscoe Conkling, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein, Barry Goldwater, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, poor, sweet William Howard Taft, Major Archibald Butt, RMS Titanic.
Did you know Janet is reading a biography of each U.S. president in chronological order? You can read all about it at her blog,
Not discussed in this episode: The theory that the presidency has diminished over time due to HA HA HA HA HA HA HA “MAJOR BUTT” HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA.
Most Revelatory Second Pass
In January I finished rereading the Harry Potter series for the first time since the final book was released in 2007. My first readings of the series’s final books had all been feverish and nocturnal — usually consuming the 24 hours after the book’s initial release. Pushing through the last 200 pages of the series at 4a.m. in July 2007, I was only interested in finding out who lived and died. When I reread Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows in January, I couldn’t believe how much of the books I hadn’t retained. There was one character, who is introduced and plays a major part in the seventh book, whom I didn’t remember at all. The section of Deathly Hallows where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in hiding, which felt ponderous my first time through, revealed itself to be a well-done study of the book’s central relationships, and my previous disgust with it was obviously just impatience for plot and clues. I thought rereading the series would be a fun, nostalgic exercise, but it turned out to be a singular reading experience, enriching in a way that was wholly distinct from my first read.
Best Serendipitous Literary Connection
There’s a new Little Free Library a block from my apartment — one of those birdhouse-like structures full of donated books that you’re welcome to take, and encouraged to replenish with unwanted books of your own. I think of myself as its fairy godmother — one of my secret joys has been stocking it with extra copies of new releases or review copies that I’ve received, like a hardcover copy of The Goldfinch I put in the library the day after its release (you’re welcome, lucky neighbor!). I rarely take a book out, except for the day I spotted The Cradle by Patrick Somerville and gasped with joy.
Best Read of the Year
I still think about Another Great Day At Sea by Geoff Dyer, which I reviewed here in May, all the time. It’s remarkable how openly delighted Dyer allowed himself to be by everyone and everything he came across aboard an aircraft carrier. It’s remarkable the depth of love and passion the carrier’s personnel shared with him. It’s remarkable that there are still secret worlds and books to introduce them to us.
I took Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan on my summer vacation, and nothing will ever be the same. All of the included essays are exceptional, but it was “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” originally published in GQ, that really fascinated me. Besides a passing familiarity with their most popular songs, I didn’t know a thing about Guns N’ Roses, but after reading that profile I started watching their music videos on YouTube, which led to watching documentaries about them, which led to reading both Slash and Duff McKagan’s memoirs. Now I sleep in a Guns N’ Roses shirt and I listen to Live Era while I bake.
Cloud Atlas is my favorite book. I await the release of David Mitchell’s books with unmatched glee. But with The Bone Clocks I felt like I was going through the motions. That penultimate sci-fi section — the one that all the reviewers either hate or concede is the book’s low point — really unsettled me. It felt like realizing you need to break up with your boyfriend — like, I still love you, David Mitchell, I just don’t think I’m in love with you anymore. Kathryn Schultz’s extraordinary profile of him went a long way towards repairing the relationship. Hearing about Mitchell’s master plan for his unwritten novels, and how The Bone Clocks pivoted his ouevre towards them, gave me a lot of hope for the future.
Most Aggravating Historical Legend
President William Howard Taft probably never got stuck in a bathtub. He was a stress eater, yes, and gained close to 100 pounds while in office, but I came to like him when I read William Howard Taft by Henry F. Pringle and I’m sad that the bathtub story is the only thing most people know about him. The story appears in exactly one place, a book called Forty-Two Years in the White House by Irwin Hoover, who was White House Chief Usher for most of his career. The book is full of anecdotes about the 10 presidents he served under, and a number of them have proved to be fictional, especially the ones about Taft, whom Hoover seemed to think distinctly undeserving of respect. The authenticity of the bathtub story is questionable at best.
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