I was, throughout childhood and adolescence, not much of a reader. I did not exactly dislike books; from time to time I would flip through them, particularly books on history and space. But there was no love there. Throughout four years of high school English, Honors mind you, I managed A’s without actually fully reading a single book. There was one exception, The Count of Monte Cristo, which I did read with great pleasure, but this exception did not break the rule. During my first year or so of college, my reading habits remained more or less the same. I read to access knowledge, or merely data I’m now tempted to say, but not for pleasure. It was a rather mercenary and joyless affair.
Sometime during my sophomore year of college, all of this changed and it did so because of one book. I found myself wandering the aisle of a large bookstore, Barnes & Noble most likely, and I decided on a whim that I would buy a book. Enjoying American history as I did, I made my way to the History section, and for reasons that escape me, I picked up a 1,100 page tome on the life of Harry Truman. I’m sure at the time I had no sense of what would be the enduring significance of that purchase. It would sound melodramatic if I said the book changed my life, but it is arguably true.
David McCullough’s Truman transformed my mercenary sort of reading into a labor of love and it did so largely by immersing me in a fascinating story, remarkably well told. I enjoyed every bit of the nearly three and a half pound book. I was fascinated by Truman and his times which, through McCulllough’s prose, now seemed to come alive. McCullough had captured the man and his era through the stories he wove together page after page. It was a magnificent literary work, well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it garnered, and it primed me for a lifetime of reading.
Those who have read any of McCullough’s work on topics ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, to the childhood of Theodore Roosevelt and the life of John Adams, and most recently to the story of Americans in Paris in the nineteenth century, know that he is a gifted storyteller above all. I knew also — from listening to McCullough’s narration of Ken Burns’ Civil War and from recordings of lectures that I had stumbled across from time to time — that his story telling gift was not confined to the written page. And so I was delighted to discover that he would be delivering a public lecture at a local college.
McCoullough did not disappoint. He effortlessly and artfully wove one captivating vignette after another into a compelling brief for the value of history, education, and hard work. His distinct cadence and intonation simultaneously infused gravity, passion, and joy into crisp, clear, vivid sentences that built one upon the other to create anecdotes that always hit their mark and memorably so.
With logic that rang experientially true to me, he explained that students, above all, register the teacher’s attitude, which means that teachers must love their subject; and to love it they must know it, really know it. Enough with the methods courses he seemed to say. He told us about teachers in his own life and teachers in the American past that transformed lives through their passion. The great nineteenth century Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz, for example, who again and again urged his students to look at their fish. And he reminded us of Charles Sumner who, while visiting France, observed blacks and whites learning together in a classroom and who, coming back to America, became one of the leading voices of abolition and was infamously beaten near death for his convictions — all of it because of what he saw in a classroom.
McCullough’s praise for teachers was matched by his gentlemanly restrained frustration with contemporary politicians and popular culture. Harry Truman read Latin for pleasure. Adams and Jefferson, having put old enmities aside, passed their long retirements in sustained correspondence discussing ideas and history and the details of Greek translation. Stop talking about sports and television he urged, playing the self-avowed crank. We too must talk of history and ideas. Revive dinner table conversation. And revive the ideal of work. Commercial society, he said, has promoted the false equation of ease and happiness. In truth, happiness more often accompanies hard work. Every one of his subjects was happiest when they were working the hardest and overcoming adversity. But none of them did it on their own; there are no self-made men he told us more than once.
And time, we should remember, watches over all of us. In a story that fits well with the themes of this blog he explained that he disliked digital watches because they only ever told you what time it was in the present. Analog watches bore testimony to time past and time future. In the old House of Representatives congressmen could check the time on a clock that hung over the door of the chamber, and when they did, they also would see a statue of Cleo, goddess of history, in the act of writing on her scroll. When they looked at the clock, the congressmen would be reminded that there was another time, historical time, by which they would be judged.
McCullough fits his own description of the best sort of teacher. He is unabashedly passionate about his subjects and his passion is of the infectious sort. This passion leapt from the pages of Truman into my own mind and heart many years ago and for that I owe McCullough a great deal, more perhaps than even I realize.
About John Adams, McCullough wrote that he went to Harvard and there discovered books and read forever. I was very pleased to tell him last night that Truman had been my Harvard.