Long Books

I have somehow gotten into a cycle of reading particularly long books. I like long books. There is something particularly exciting about starting a book that seems almost endless, knowing that the pleasure of the book won’t be over in a day or two. There are, however, two downsides to long books:

  1. Reading one long book means I am forgoing the opportunity of reading two or three shorter books.
  2. If the long book is particularly good, the ending almost always strikes a bittersweet note with me.

The latter is true of the long book that I am about to finish today, George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. While not by any means the longest book I’ve read, it is still a long book by most standards. (It’s over 41 hours on Audible.) As I approach the end of Washington’s days, I look back to a couple of weeks ago when Washington was a young boy and wonder, where did the time go? I spend the last few weeks getting a very close picture of George Washington, and while there is always satisfaction in finishing a good book, I’m sad to say goodbye.

Looking through the list of books that I’ve read, I think the longest one is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burroughs, which I read back in 2006. The books from Will Durant’s Story of Civilization are also quite long, but the longest of these, The Age of Faith, I have yet to read.

Stephen King has written a few long books. The Stand is probably his longest, followed closely by It, the latter of which is my all-time favorite book at the moment.

In addition to being in a cycle of long books, I am in a cycle of nonfiction. Perhaps the two tend to go hand-in-hand. I used to get a fairly good balance between fiction and nonfiction books each year, back when I made an effort to do so. These days, I typically read whatever I feel like reading at the moment, and don’t force things on myself just because I think I’ve read too much fiction or nonfiction of late. The last three books I’ve read have been nonfiction, and I suspect that trend will continue for a while.

Having re-read John Adams by David McCullough recently, and followed that up with George Washington: A Life, I find myself once again enamored with the early history of the United States. I’ve always had a fascination for this time period. I don’t why others derive a fascination with the American Revolution (or if they hold such a fascination at all), but I can trace my fascination back to my 5th grade class in Warwick, Rhode Island. Learning about the American Revolution while living in New England, where the revolution started and where much of it took place, made an enormous impression upon me.

While I am very close to finishing up the Washington biography, I don’t want to lose the pleasure that I’ve been taking from immersing myself in that period of American history. Since I’ve read a biography of Washington and Adams, the next logical subject is Thomas Jefferson. Back in 2004, I read Thomas Jefferson: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall, and read at least part of it while on the campus of the college of William and Mary. I think I’m ready for some stronger stuff, and I’m leaning towards reading Dumas Malone’s 6-volume Pulitzer prize winning biography of Jefferson, written between 1948 and 1981. I already have the first volume, Jefferson the Virginian all queued up and ready to go.

However, in order to give myself a little breath and change of pace, I may slip in one lighter book before starting on the Jefferson biography, Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America. Because the heavy stuff, as good as it is, can weigh you down.

I imagine that, at some point later this year, my heart will start to yearn for fiction again, and at that point, I’ll set aside the nonfiction. But for now, I’m having too much fun.


  1. I really love your Going Paperless columns, and often link to them in my monthly links round-up post for the blog I co-author, Academic PKM. So thanks very much for some great content.

    I too have always been fascinated by the Revolutionary era, I think for different reasons. One is that an extraordinary number of great talents came together to accomplish something almost without precedent, and that they did it so well is absolutely amazing. I have in my queue to read a new book on James and Dolly Madison, called James and Dolly Madison: America’s First Power Couple. Madison fascinates me because he came up with most of the Constitution.

    Another reason I like the Revolutionary era is that I am a native Southerner, with a mother who tended to be seduced by the romance of the Old South, and in a part of the country steeped in Civil War history. I love Lincoln, but hate the old South and what it stood for – the enslavement and debasement of other human beings. So partly my liking of the Revolutionary era is a reaction to my hatred of the Civil War era.

    Another factor is my fascination with the Enlightenment era, and I consider the American Revolution to be a part of that. There was such an amazing flowering of conceptions about human rights. We keep building on that, from the idea that more and more citizens should have the right to participate in the political process to ending slavery, to the civil rights movement to the women’s rights movement to the gay rights movement.

    One book I would recommend to you if you are interested in that kind of topic is Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains (http://www.amazon.com/Bury-Chains-Prophets-Rebels-Empires-ebook/dp/B004H1UE90/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1394719277&sr=1-4&keywords=adam+hochschild) about the movement to end slavery in the British empire. It is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read.

    And I assume you’re going on to Franklin at some point? He was so fascinating – scientist, inventor, diplomat. One of the things that is so intriguing about the Founding Fathers is that each one brought needed strengths to the table… I know you love Adams, and I do too, but he wasn’t a good diplomat, and Franklin was. I read and liked Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0300095325/ref=nosim/librarythin08-20).

    Oh, my … you can tell I’m a biblioholic. I just love to discuss books.

    1. Mary, I read H.W. Brand’s biography of Franklin several years ago, but I was considering Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin at some point. (I enjoyed Isaacson’s biography of Einstein.) I’m interested on reading about Madison and Monroe as well, but I may not get to them for a while. Thanks for the Hoschschild recommendation. That does sound like a good one!

  2. Have you read American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson? It’s by Joseph Ellis, and though I’ve not read any other Jefferson bios, I’ve heard it ranks amongst the best.


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