I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.
I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover. This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.
The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.
The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan
Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”
John Adams by David McCullough
A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:
Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.
Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)
The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.
A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford
Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.
For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.
During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.
The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.
The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück
There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.
After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.
In the fall of 2009, I set out to read a biography of each American president in chronological order. So far, I’ve made it to James Buchanan (#15).
When I tell people about this project, I routinely get two questions.
The First Question: Why?
The short answer is that I want to be the kind of woman Josh Lyman would date, which in turn is a way of saying that I want to be an Aaron Sorkin character. The long answer is about context.
Living in a country with 235 years of nationhood under its corn belt, I have only a fuzzy knowledge of the men who led us here. I know who signed the Declaration of Independence, won the wars, had the prettiest or wackiest wives, and made landmark decisions or landmark mistakes. But who are all these other guys? Which of them decided to build a transcontinental railroad, sign the Equal Rights Amendment, or settle the Oregon border? Did you know Millard Fillmore’s wife established the White House library? James K. Polk increased the size of the country by 500,000 square miles. John Tyler abandoned his own party while in office, and was later elected to the Confederate Senate. Zachary Taylor was Jefferson Davis’ father-in-law. Martin Van Buren’s first language was Dutch. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford together.
The march of American history doesn’t leap-frog from one monumental achievement to the next. When people ask me why I’m reading 44 presidential biographies, they’re really asking whether or not it’s boring, which it certainly can be (the blog where I write about the project is called At Times Dull, after all). In reading biographies rather than narrative history, my subject matter is constantly repeating. I went through the American Revolution six times, because the first six presidents were each personally involved. Reading about that phenomenal time period over and over – each time through the lens of a different extraordinary life – was fascinating. Reading about the Compromise of 1850 four times? Far less so.
But therein lies the worth of the experience. We’d like to build a national reputation around triumph and the progress of civil liberty, but we’ve spent just as much time making bad decisions. To read through American history chronologically is to give equal attention to both stripes.
I’ve just reached the end of the streak of presidents between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln remarkable for how rarely they’re remembered. They are Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, and you will not find their faces on money. Their hallmarks are the Mexican-American War, expansion to the Pacific, and the Industrial Revolution, but mainly they spent 35 years scrambling to keep the country together by any means possible. Let me tell you this: anyone who says Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is exaggerated has never spent seventeen months reading about antebellum politicians.
Reading about them is to dwell in that long, uncertain, muddy time when the most an outgoing president ever boasted was a long series of compromises. And yet, each of them got up every morning with the weight of the nation on their shoulders and worked late into the night. (Polk actually micro-managed the executive office, working so hard that he sometimes went weeks without leaving the White House.) Learning about their times, watching them navigate the unglorious periods of our history with as much wisdom as they can muster, has changed the way I think about America much more than reading the lofty words of Jefferson and Madison ever could. And much as I love Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, I have a much more personal affection for the likes of Madison and Fillmore.
Which Brings Me To The Second Question: Who is your favorite president?
How my heart swells to say it: John Quincy Adams.
JQA entered public service at the age of 14, when he accompanied family friend and diplomat Francis Dana to St. Petersburg. During Washington’s administration he was a diplomat to the Netherlands, later traveling to England to help finalize the Jay Treaty, then serving as minister to Prussia. He returned to America for a short time during which he worked two jobs – U.S. Senator and Harvard Professor of Rhetoric – before going back to Europe as America’s first ambassador to Russia. He left Russia to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, then served for two years as a Minister to Britain before being appointed Secretary of State for President James Monroe, whom he helped to draft the Monroe Doctrine.
He was a lovely old grump. He got up every morning between 4 and 6 a.m., read the Bible, translated some Latin or Greek, and went for a walk, usually culminating in a frigid swim. When he lived in Russia, he swam in the Neva, on whose banks he would frequently run into the tsar. That he was a genius is no question. Everyone from Washington to Franklin to the King of England said he was one of the keenest statesmen they’d ever known, and by the time he ran for president in 1824, he was easily the most experienced.
He was not a good president. His heart belonged more to the boulevards of Ghent and London than the muddy paths of Washington. The grand ideas he had for internal improvements, university, museums, and observatories didn’t catch the imagination of the country, and he lacked the charm and tact to win them over. Additionally, Andrew Jackson, who had won the popular vote in 1824 but lost to JQA in a House vote, was out to get him. Jackson’s supporters blocked his legislation, and then defeated him in the 1828 election.
Humiliated and depressed, he retired to Massachusetts to read the entire works of Cicero in the original Latin. Despite his glittering career, he had always suffered bouts of self-loathing, stemming from his early fears that success came to him because of his father. He was all too aware that, to an outside observer, his life could appear to be a long string of nepotism and elite cronyism that ended in botching the highest office in the land.
“I will not desert in my old age the Republic that I defended in my youth,” Cicero wrote. At the age of 64, two years after leaving the presidency, John Quincy Adams ran for Congress. He served as a Representative from Massachusetts under the next five presidents, until he collapsed during a House session at the age of 81 and was taken to the Speaker’s chambers, where he died two days later.
JQA’s 17 years as a post-presidential Congressman were legendary. He quite literally had nothing to lose. Most of his colleagues were a generation younger, and he was vastly more experienced. He became an outspoken abolitionist, an issue no one else, politically, could afford to touch. He presented petitions for the abolition of slavery in Washington D.C., and found sneaky ways to evade the Congressional gag rule (forbidding debate of slavery). He argued the case of the Amistad sailors before the Supreme Court, and he orchestrated the founding of the Smithsonian. He wouldn’t give up, and he wouldn’t be quiet. John Quincy Adams was an Aaron Sorkin character.
His unpopularity as a president felt too similar to his own self-doubt, and he set out, in the fifth act of his life, to refute it. Remarkably, it worked. He became known as “Old Man Eloquent,” the nation’s last surviving link to the revolutionary generation, and was far more respected and popular as a Congressman than he had ever been as a president.
His was one of the most eventful lives in early American history. He met Catherine the Great and Charles Dickens. He met George Washington when he was a teenager, and served in the House with Abraham Lincoln when he was in his 80s. To remember him as the one-term, sixth president of the United States is like remembering Michael Jordan as an outfielder for Birmingham.
This month we commemorated the lives of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and we are right to do so. But the slow, busy procession of history is about so much more than the wins. The forgotten presidents are so much more than seat-fillers. John Quincy Adams was so much more than a president.
The Presidential Biographies I’ve Read (So Far)
His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis
John Adams by David McCullough
Thomas Jefferson by R.B. Bernstein
James Madison by Ralph Ketcham
James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity by Henry Ammon
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Martin Van Buren and the Emergence of American Popular Politics by Joel Silbey
Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy by Robert M. Owens
John Tyler, the Accidental President by Edward P. Crapol
A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry
Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest by K. Jack Bauer
Millard Fillmore by Robert J. Scarry
Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union by Peter Wallner
President James Buchanan by Philip S. Klein
(Image: George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), First President (1789-1797) from nostri-imago’s photostream)