Archives For history books

I feel like I just competed an ultra marathon after reading Grant. Yet, this is one of the most rewarding reads of my life. I certainly felt the runners high about halfway through it, especially during the height of the Civil War and General Grant moved from being an unknown western leader to establishing himself as the fighter we know him today. I feel like I only learned about the bullet points of his life when I was a student but with “Grant”, I learned more of the story that made the relatable man we should view him as today.

9780525521952Some of what is great about Grant is Ron Chernow’s excellent research and storytelling. Some of it is just the fact that Grant is a great American while possessing great flaws. That is what makes him so much more relatable to other major leaders in US History. He grew up with very little yet struggled and struggled. Juxtaposed with the aristocracy and monarchy of Europe, Grant was a true working American man of the people. He was a champion for those who couldn’t fight for themselves, most notably during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Frederick Douglas praised Grant, “To [President and General Ulysses S. Grant] more than any other man the negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party; hence his place as its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms.” Grant continued Lincoln’s legacy as best as he could and knew that nursing the country back to health in the decades after the Civil War was just as important as winning the war.

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Grant posing restless yet determined after the devastating defeat at Cold Harbor.

If you look up the definition of resilience, you should find Grant as he fought literally until the day he died. There are many lessons like this you take from his life. Along with his ability to fight through difficult circumstances in the Civil War to falling prey to bad business deals, I highly appreciate that he never lost the enthusiasm to learn. The press and his enemies would often call him a Cretan yet he became incredibly well read and his two and a half year journey around the world after his presidency is unmatched for his time.

Next up, I am hope to read the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (published by his friend Mark Twain).

If you are not up for the 1,000 page epic, I highly recommend listening to Ron Chernow’s podcast interview on The Art of Manliness. Listen here.

 

 

I love reading biographies.

I make an effort to read three or four biographies per year about people I have admired or wanted to learn more about.

For those who are avid readers, you may have a genre that you favor more than others. In the past two years I have made an effort to read a greater variety of books, especially by reading (or re-reading) classics and venturing into fiction. These genres are all fascinating and drive my spirit of mind. But, I keep coming back to my first love of biography.

I believe that human lives are beautiful and are meant to be studied. It’s not because I don’t care about myself. It is also not because I think people who have a book written about them (or by them) deserve to be worshiped, either. I do love hearing about their adventures and great triumphs and feel like I am along for the ride.

But, the secret to a good biography is learning that these great people we admire have made mistakes, just like us.

Historian Walter Isaacson said it best,

“When you write biographies, whether it’s about Ben Franklin or Einstein, you discover something amazing: They are human.”

I believe that God sees each of us as a biography being written. After all, He sees us for who we really are; imperfect people who need grace and an urging by his holy spirit to act. Thus, he sends us on a journey called life. Some of us have a harder journey than others. But, we are all meant to seek it for God’s greater glory and that means taking steps beyond what we could ever have imagined. I believe biographies exist to remind us that we are not alone in our struggles.

Psalm 121:8

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

I think when I watch a movie like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it reminds me that we need to do more than dream. We just need to obey God and act. And by that act comes a great journey in faith. Watch the movie and the life of Walter Mitty to understand this scene. Although the story is fictional, Mitty’s life represents a living biography. Clearly he has dreamed but it his the transformation that counts.

Start by examining your own life and how the story is meant to be told. Then read the lives of others to see how you can see your stories in theirs.

This past year, I have read the following biographies and here is a quick lesson (of many) I’ve learned from each.

Young Winston Churchill at the beginning of his journey.

Young Winston Churchill at the beginning of his journey.

Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill by Michael Shelden

  • Insight: Did you know that Churchill’s career was virtually done with at the age of 40? Did that stop him? “Never give in” were his words. And we now know him as the uniter of the English language to defeat Naziism.

Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas

  • Insight: Eisenhower was blamed for not being tough enough on the Soviets in the 1950s. But, it was his restraint and patience that kept the world alive.

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (The Odyssey of Pat Tillman) 

  • Insight: Studying the life of someone like Pat Tillman who gave up millions of dollars to join the military post-9/11 is fascinating. But, think twice of why he really served.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

  • Insight: Ever wondered if CIA agents were all like Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt? Think again. This is how real 20th Century CIA work was done.

 

Biographies are meant to inspire us.

They are here to compel us to move.

I dare you to pick up a biography this week.

Report back in on the journey.

Remember, Bilbo Baggins needed to go on his adventures first before his story could be told.

Go write yours.

From an early age, it has been ingrained in me to love history. My parents and grandparents all stressed the importance of learning about where I came from personally as well the merits of citizenship. Their thought was “If we can not learn from our mistakes, how will we as individuals and a society improve?”

I wish more people could experience history as I did growing up.

History is often the worst-tested subject among high schoolers in the United States.

Kids have voted and they are rejecting history.

Here are the most common complaints about history.

  • It is boring
  • History doesn’t help me in life
  • It is just a bunch of random facts that are difficult to remember

Dr. James Loewen offers a very simple answer to why people are frustrated with history,

“Kids don’t hate history. They hate the way we teach it.”

David McCullough, America’s storyteller and popular historian shares the ‘why’ we should love history,

“History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”

What we missed is the beautiful and entertaining narrative of history.

We love stories.

I minored in history in college but my education has not stopped there. When I was 22, I picked up a copy of Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. It is the book that changed the way I looked at history. Undaunted Courage breathed new life into me and my hope is that others will find that kind of love in history books today.

Here are six books that will make you fall in love with history.

1. Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

This is the grand story of Lewis and Clark, their commission from President Thomas Jefferson and their triumphant quest to reach the west coast. This is the book that helped make history books popular. Stephen Ambrose gives Lewis & Clark a new narrative and I recommend starting with this book.

UndauntedCourage

2. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

This is the story of Louis Zamperini who ran in the 1936 Olympics in front of Hitler and later crashed in a B-24 during World War II only to float in the Pacific for weeks only to be captured and spend the rest of the war in a Japanese POW camp. Look for the movie starring  to be released this Christmas

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3. Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley

To fully understand war in its glory, propaganda, and sacrifice, you should read Flags of Our Fathers. It follows the six famous marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II. The 2006 movie by Clint Eastwood does a nice job capturing the story but the book is where you learn more about the characters, especially from the author James Bradley, son of one of the flag bearers, Doc Bradley.

flagsofourfathers
4. How the Scots Invented the Modern World

This is a fun book that gives a reader a sense of appreciation for the Scots and their incredible innovations that we benefit from today. Their contribution to the world was well beyond kilts and haggis.

how the scots

5. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Who would have ever thought that a book about a 19th Century midwest World’s Fair would be so interesting? Larson provides readers with the dual storyline of H.H. Holmes, a notorious and inventive serial killer paralleled with the story of the main architect of the Chicago World’s Fair.  Erik Larson is a tremendous storyteller and after you finish Devil int he White City, pick up a copy of In the Garden of Beasts.

Devil-in-the-White-City
6. April 1865 by Jay Winik

People to this day wonder what the Civil War was fought for. I’ve read dozens of Civil War books but this one by far provided the best context for the war’s beginning ‘s well as how our nation healed to become strong again.

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There are plenty of other great history books out there but if you have not read many before or have had a bad experience in history, I highly recommend you start with this list.

Which other history books do you love and why? 

Remember Lewis and Clark?

I, like most of you in the United States read about them in American History classes growing up. I was taught a basic overview of their journey, primarily because I lived in the midwest where they traveled. It was as if they were bullet points in a textbook and I learned the following:

  • They covered a lot of ground in a boat
  • Met some Native Americans
  • Made it to the Pacific Ocean
  • Recommended to the President we go west.

Simple enough but there was little story, only bullet-points. In truth, I thought of them more as a punchline as used in the opening of the movie National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985) in the ridiculous Pig in a Polk quiz show opening scene.

Ten years ago, I read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage (Simon & Schuster, 1997), the epic narrative about the American explorers Merriweather Lewis and William Clark. I loved studying history and even minored in it in college, but I had never read any book that was written more as a story prior to this one. It was as if the Lewis and Clark’s almost mythological story finally made sense and I could get the accurate picture of these two explorers as if they were in a movie. I could visualize their adventure, share in their ambitions, trials, frustrations, hunger, fears, joy, and even sadness. History became alive to me in their story.

Their story resonates with me today and is pushing me to ask my question,

“What do I need to discover?”

Last month I read a BBC article titled What Adventures Are Actually Left?. It was about how we may be approaching the end of “discovery”.  According to the article, genuine firsts are hard to find these days. The mountains have all been summited. With GPS, it is hard not to easily discover remote islands in the Pacific or visit Antarctica in the winter with modern technology. It seems as if the ocean and space are the last frontier and are largely undiscovered.

While there less “firsts” for man to discover, the battle for discovery of the heart is at stake for each individual. It is the never-ending adventure of man. We as man are not meant to give up so easily because we are made to reach for the next thing. Discovery-adventure is needed to grow culturally and spiritually. Each person has their own reasons and they real what is true to their heart. Here is one of my favorite.

March 18, 1923 issue of the New York Times. The headline was “Climbing Mount Everest is Work for Supermen.”

Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” This question was asked of George Leigh Mallory, who was with both expeditions toward the summit of the world’s highestmountain, in 1921 and 1922, and who is now in New York. He plans to go again in 1924, and he gave as the reason for persisting in these repeated attempts to reach the top, “Because it’s there.

We may never know exactly what was at stake personally for Hillary but his tenacity to achieve such a feat shows that something deep within him was stirring.

I can come up with excuses all day long about why I don’t have time for this adventure and how there is never enough money. My wife and I don’t want to live life with any regret. I think that is why the Pixar movie, Up (2009), resonated so much with me. You watch the main character as a boy growing up to become an old man in the movie. His life, much like yours or mine was not easy and complete with all sorts of unexpected twists. It shows that all we have in life are excuses unless we move our lives into the intentional mode.

My wife and I have realized that if we don’t show our two daughters how to be adventurous, we will all get lost in life’s busy shuffle.

Lewis and Clark, Mallory, and the movie Up, all remind me to not to just “do things” but to do them with a purpose bigger than me. Do them because it matters. Not just to cross it off like a simple bucket list but for the purpose of a story to tell that matters for the ages. After all, God knows what true adventure is and his adventure flows from his story in The Bible. Our real adventure is with Christ and without his purpose, all of this is meaningless, a mere earthly thrill.

What is the adventure in your life?  

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite songs about adventure. My daughter’s faces were lit up when first hearing the song, Learn Me Right, by Mumford and Sons (featuring vocals by Birdy) in the movie, Brave (2012), It later became a sister song called Not With Haste in their new album, Babel, as well. I may even add it to My Funeral Mix.