I have never known a writer who wasn't a reader and I doubt that anyone can write without being influenced by his or her writing. You are what you read, you might say. Fred Kaplan's Lincoln: Biography of a Writer could, then, just as easily be called Lincoln: Biography of a Reader.
We all have heard the stories about young Abe Lincoln reading by firelight, but little about what he actually read, or under what circumstances he was reading. His father was illiterate, a hardscrabble farmer who made just enough to get by. This wasn't terribly unusual, of course. Many people couldn't read; others read well enough just to read the Bible. Many felt that there was little need for reading beyond studying the Bible. Memorization was big--those who couldn't actually read could recite long Biblical passages (they also could recite Shakespeare, a surprising--or perhaps not--frontier favorite). Lincoln was able to go to a couple of primary schools as his family moved around, and quickly realized that education--especially reading--was the ticket out of the life of hard labor and just getting-by that his father lived. He read everything he could, which wasn't that much--the family had a Bible and a primer called the Dilworth Speller, a reading anthology for children that included Aesop's Fables. His mother died when he was a young boy and his father remarried a woman who brought into the Lincoln home (along with a few of her own children) a small library that included a spelling book, a book on elocution, Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and the Arabian Nights. The latter two especially were the kind of adventure stories that make imaginative children turn into storytellers themselves, and Lincoln became known amongst his peers as a teller of tales (as he grew older, he developed a lifelong reputation as a teller of the 19th c. version of naughty stories. Bawdy Abe. I don't think that was in my sixth grade social studies book). Later he fell in love with poetry, especially Burns, Byron, and Shakespeare; although as an adult he would have many opportunities to see performances of Shakespeare, he never enjoyed those as much as just reading the plays. He never read much fiction beyond those, preferring histories, essays, and biographies (he was a president who made good use of the Library of Congress).
Kaplan spends a good portion of the book going over these different books that Lincoln read, and then as Lincoln grew older and went out into the world, parses his speeches and various public writings to show how and where they affected his writing. Burns's appreciation of common speech and dialect showed in Lincoln's use of personal stories, self-deprecating comments, jokes and stories told in a style that would have been familiar to anyone with the barest of educations--the kind of people he gew up with. The influence of Shakespeare, Byron and other poets, some popular then but now forgotten, is apparent in his sense of meter, shape, and most of all, care in choice of words. Lincoln was a bit of amateur poet--not great, but reasonably skilled. However, his best poetry was found in his prose; in a study of a speech Lincoln gave to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859, Kaplan shows how one paragraph can be taken apart and reconstructed as a poem.
That was my favorite part of a book which has no shortage of wonders. It's not strictly a biography, but it does of course go through Lincoln's life, explaining important things here and there. It touches on his legal career and personal life, though it doesn't dissect them too much--there are enough books that do that (I looked at the bibliography, and really, you could spend the rest of your life reading books about Lincoln). I confess, that I have always stubbornly resisted reading any of those. The commonality of the Civil War and Lincoln made me avoid them--too many people were into them, so of course I couldn't be (I am very annoying in this way). This means that I in turn could fill pages with the things about Lincoln I learned in this book that I didn't know that are no doubt basic to many others, and which made me feel terribly guilty for being so neglectful of his life, because there are many things to like (example--I didn't know he was such an animal lover. One of the first essays he wrote in school was an argument for kinder treatment of animals. As one of those irritating people who is always weeping over every stray kitten, neglected dog, or hungry bunny in the world, you can imagine how quickly this sold me on President #16). In the coming year, expect a rash of Lincoln reading from me as I try to catch up, I am afraid.
We live in a time where writing is both more and less important than it was in Lincoln's day. Visual forms of communication abound, but with the rise of the Internet people now seem to be writing as much as any of those 18th century figures who seemed to write letters all day. Now, though, it's done in emails, blogs, text messages, etc. The difference though, is that the more people write in this way, the less they seem to care about how they write. People just write and write and write but don't care about the exact words they use or how they put together a sentence, a paragraph, a letter. And when people read, this is what they read, more than a carefully constructed novel, story, or essay. The more people read the dashed off, careless words, the more likely they are to write that way themselves. You are what you read. Sometimes when I work on a project for students that involves teaching them how to write an essay, or how to critically read a piece of fiction, I find myself silently thinking why? why does it matter? How many of them will care? How many of them will grow up and read something beyond a memo at work that is just a series of bullet points? How many of them will write anything beyond that themselves? And how many of them will not feel they are missing anything? I wonder if it doesn't make sense to throw out all those lessons on "how does the author illustrate character" or "how does the author's word choice show his/her point of view?" It feels sometimes like we should just be concentrating on teaching them how to read directions or follow written instructions. Maybe that's enough.
But in my heart I know it's not. And maybe for every ten thousand kids who care for nothing beyond following those instructions or understanding that memo, there will be one who sees more, who wants more, who sees beauty in the right words put together in a precise way, not unlike Lincoln. And from that, greatness can be found. Words have meaning, words matter, I believe this, I do.