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George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin…
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George Washington: A Life in Books (2017)

by Kevin J. Hayes

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"When it comes to the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton are generally singled out as the great minds of early America. Up until the present day, George Washington has never been taken seriously as an intellectual. Indeed, John Adams once snobbishly dismissed him as "too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation." Yet Adams and most of the men who knew Washington were unaware of his regular devotion to reading as a program of self-improvement. Based on an exhaustive amount of research at the Library of Congress, the collections at Mount Vernon, and rare book archives scattered across the country, Kevin J. Hayes draws on juvenilia, letters, diaries, pamphlets, and the close to 1,000 books owned by Washington to reconstruct the active intellectual life that has gone largely unnoticed in conventional narratives of the first US president. Despite being a lifelong reader, Washington felt a sense of acute embarrassment about his relative lack of formal education and cultural sophistication, and in this lively literary biography, Hayes reconstructs how Washington worked tirelessly to improve his mind. Beginning with the primers, forgotten periodicals, conduct books, and classic eighteenth-century novels such as Tom Jones that shaped Washington's early life, Hayes engages with Washington's letters and journals, charting the many ways the books of his upbringing affected decisions before and during the Revolutionary War. The final section of the book covers the voluminous reading that occurred during Washington's presidency and his retirement at Mount Vernon. Throughout, Hayes also engages with Washington's writings as well as his readings, starting with The Journal of Major George Washington and going through his Farewell Address. The sheer breadth of titles under review here allow readers to glimpse Washington's views on foreign policy, economics, the law, art, slavery, marriage, and religion. Ultimately, The Books in George Washington's Life offers a startling new perspective on the mind of America's Father, uncovering the ideas that shaped his intellectual journey and, subsequently, the development of young America."-- "Revered as a general and trusted as America's first elected leader, George Washington is considered a great many things in the contemporary imagination, but an intellectual is not one of them. In correcting this longstanding misconception, George Washington: A Life in Books offers a stimulating literary biography that traces the effects of a life spent in self-improvement"--… (more)

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So here you are, reading a book review about a book about the history of George Washington’s books. It’s hard to get more meta than that. In all seriousness, though, this was an interesting angle for a history/biography about the first president of the United States.

Working roughly in chronological order, Hayes takes us through the library at Mount Vernon. We start with Washington’s earliest books (collections of devotions by famous preachers), and move from there to travel guides, reference books, abolitionist tracts (though he regrettably never used his considerable political influence to address the injustice of slavery, in his personal dealings Washington was an abolitionist), popular fiction, and military books.

Hayes introduces us to a man born in the American colonies, and denied a “proper” English education. In order to compensate for an education he perceived as lacking, Washington would embark on a lifetime quest of self-improvement. He actively sought out books to deepen his understanding of the physical, spiritual, and literary worlds. His passion for books and for reading would remain undiminished throughout his life.

George Washington has deservedly been the subject of countless biographies. Approaching his life from the direction of his library is both refreshing and educational. While some of the conclusions the author draws based on the content of the Mount Vernon library shelves seems a bit reaching, on the whole this is a fascinating look at one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  irregularreader | Aug 2, 2017 |
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