There is a biography of John Adams on my nightstand. It’s been there, mostly, for more than a year. It’s one of those Pulitzer Prize winning books that are good for you, and I’m determined to finish reading it, but it’s a slow process.
I’m all for intellectual rigor and I suppose the personal bickering between Adams and Ben Franklin while both were representing the colonies in Paris should be fascinating to me, but it’s still like wading through mud.
It’s taken months to reach page 362 of David McCullough’s 751 page tome (counting the index): I pick it up for evening reading, and most of the time, quickly fall asleep.
In contrast, I raced through the 759 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in less than a week.
Of course, those who brag about the length of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books often fail to note that the publishers use fairly large print and an almost double-spaced format, yielding far fewer words per page than more intellectual fare.
But, it’s not just the easy-reading format that makes the Harry Potter books move more quickly. Despite periodic pauses for annoying displays of teen angst, Rowling’s books mingle action, suspense, and meaningful relationships in a way that draws the reader to care about the characters and cheer for good to win over evil. Despite her much-ballyhooed lack of specific references to God, there’s no question that good and evil exist in Harry Potter’s world, that good is better, and that love and self-sacrifice will ultimately conquer evil.
McCullough’s biography of John Adams, on the other hand, is largely carried along by citations from the voluminous hand-written correspondence that he, his wife Abigail, and others such as Thomas Jefferson were prone to carry on, each apparently trying to outdo the other in their florid use of the language.
When a young man asked of Adams what sort of manners he should cultivate before venturing to Europe, for example, Adams offered a loquacious response, including this advice: “But you may depend on this, that the more decisively you adhere to a manly simplicity in your dress, equipage, and behavior, the more you devote yourself to business and study and the less to dissipation and pleasure, the more you will recommend yourself to every man and woman in this country whose friendship or acquaintance is worth your having or wishing. There is an urbanity without ostentaion or extravagace which will succeed everywhere and at all times.”
Consider yourself instructed on manly manners for the international traveler.
I don’t intend to demean Adams’ advice or the importance of learning about him and other heroes of American history: I wish the average American had half the command of the English language that Adams’ son John Quincy displayed at the age of eleven.
I’ll finish the Adams biography, along with a large stack of academic works helping me get ready for fall semester at Campbell University. But, I’ll still read the funny pages and the occasional fantasy novel, too.
A man’s gotta breathe.