Thursday, July 31, 2008

The circumstance of Ulysses S. Grants' autobiography

Quoted from Nicholas A. Basbanes in his Every Book Its Reader, pages 144-145
. . . Ulysses S. Grant, whose Personal Memoirs (1885) are by common consent far and away the best, distinctive for their candor, honesty and incisive thought. "Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs," Grant wrote in his preface, "I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication," and then explained why he changed his mind:
At the age of nearly sixty-two I received an injury from a fall, which confined me closely to the house while it did not apparently affect my general health. This made study a pleasant pastime. Shortly after, the rascality of a business partner developed itself by the announcement of failure. This was followed soon after by universal depression of all securities, which seemed to threaten the extinction of a good part of the income still retained, and for which I am indebted to the kindly acts of friends. At this juncture the editor of the Century Magazine asked me to write a few articles for him. I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money. The work I found congenial and I determined to continue it. The event is an important one for me, good or evil; I hope for the former.

The editor and publisher of the memoirs was Mark Twain, whose selfless dedication to Grant and his welfare was extraordinary. Suffering grievously from throat cancer, Grant toiled on the book for eleven months, turning out in some instances ten thousand words in a single day, a level of production that amazed everyone who read his copy. On July 19, 1885, Grant dictated the final words, his voice barely a whisper. A few hours after declaring he had finished, Grant wrote a letter to John Hancock Douglas, the doctor who had been treating him through the ordeal, declaring his readiness to die. "I first wanted so many days to work on my book so the authorship would be clearly mine," he announced with obvious relief. Four days later, he died; published posthumously, Personal Memoirs sold 300,000 copies in less than two years.


Most important personal library - Thomas Jefferson's personal collection of 6,500 books which became the founding collection for the Library of Congress.

Fastest presidential reader - Jimmy Carter at 2,000 words per minute.

Largest personal collection of books - Probably Franklin Roosevelt with 15,000 volumes.

Most select personal collection - Probably Herbert Hoover with 1,000 original editions of major works from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, all of them collector's items.

Founder of the White House Library - Millard Fillmore, who, when taking up residence after his election, discovered that there were no books at all in the White House, not even a dictionary or Bible.

Correlation between Bibliophilia and Presidential Excellence* - 100% correlation for the top ten presidents (Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln, Theordore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Eisenhower). Only two of the lowest ten rated presidents, Fillmore and Buchanan, were bibliophiles. The others making up the lowest rated ten were Tyler, Taylor, Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, Harding, Coolidge and Grant.

Presidential Authors - Presidents that wrote books that were not about themselves. Includes at least Herbert Hoover, Theodore Roosevelt, John Kennedy, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Jimmy Carter, Richard M. Nixon, and Woodrow Wilson

Number of presidents to have authored an autobiography - Thirteen

Most touching autobiography - Ulysses S. Grant (see Thing-Finder post)

Most prolific presidential author - Theodore Roosevelt who authored twenty-six books.

Most prepared presidential reader - Perhaps Theodore Roosevelt who carried a portable library with him on all his journeys.

Bibliophiles in the White House - Per Harold Evans based on book collections and reading habbits as gleaned from biographies of all the Presidents through to Bill Clinton. Those that rated as bibliophiles (22 out of 42) were:

George Washington
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
John Quincy Adams
Millard Fillmore
James Buchanan
Abraham Lincoln
Rutherford Hayes
James Garfield
Theodore Roosevelt
William Howard Taft
Woodrow Wilson
Herbert Hoover
Franklin Roosevelt
Harry Truman
Dwight Eisenhower
John Kennedy
Richard Nixon
Jimmy Carter
Bill Clinton

* Presidential Excellence based on a survey by the Siena Research Institute's survey of academic historians and political scientists.

Culled from the essay Paving the Way by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his Every Book Its Reader, and from an essay by Harold Evans in the New York Times, January 14, 2001, "White House Book Club."

Enduring Works

"The Aeneid is a cautionary tale. It is one we need to read today," Fagles said, amplifying his oft-stated conviction that readers of every generation need enduring works from the distant past available to them in their own idiom, freshly imbued with new vitality and insight. The Aeneid, in particular, he stressed, "speaks of the terrible price of victory in war, for Virgil knew that victory is finally impossible, that it always lies out of reach. He saw the unforeseen aftermath, the way war could go all wrong, whether from poor planning or because of the gods on high. He knew the sheer accumulation of death, the destruction, the pain we inflict when we use force to create empire. Even though in Virgil, as in Homer, you find great reservoirs of memory. You find the restorative power of love set against a world of violence. There is still an overriding sadness in the poem. There are countless losses. War rages on too long. The majority of books in the Aeneid end in death. Aeneas reaches out to the ghosts of those he loved, always beyond his grasp."

Quoted by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his Every Book Its Reader, page 155.


"A translation, if it is a really serious translation, becomes a new work of art in its own right, because it is a transplant in many ways." Robert Fagle

Quoted by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his Every Book Its Reader, page 152.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Blind trails

There is an update on recent research on the Antikythera Mechanism, an Ancient Greek "computer" for calculating calendrical and astronomical events. History is full of these blind trails where a technology was developed, sometimes to a surprising level of sophistication, and then, for unknown reasons, it peters out and is abandoned. The Chinese with their massive ocean-going junks in the Middle Ages is one example but somewhat explicable. More mysteriously (and much earlier), they developed the capability of producing steel which they did for a couple of hundred years before losing the technology completely.

As mysteriously, the ancient Aztecs had the concept of the wheel but used it only for children's toys and never developed it for transportation.

Mysteries of history.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Pliny - nullum esse librum tam malum ut non ex aliqua parte prodesset

From Epistles 3 by Pliny the Younger
No book so bad but some part may be of use.

- (nullum esse librum tam malum ut non ex aliqua parte prodesset)

Save the Economy - Read to a Child Today

Here is a great interview with a leading economist, James Heckman, that is well worth reading as his research surfs the same waters that affect one of the core interests of the TTMD community - how to instill a love of reading among our children.

This interview was conducted by a journalist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in June 2005.

Below are some of the provocative highlights (which make perfect sense in the context of the interview.

On sources of inequality -
The family is the major source of human inequality in American society.

On the importance of measuring non-cognitive skills (personal behaviors, discipline, etc.) as well as cognitive skills (such as test scores, years of school attended, etc.) -
These findings have major implications for American educational policy - for example, the No Child Left Behind Act, and all the related policies which are predicated on the assumption that we succeed with an educational intervention if we improve on test scores. Such policies are at best misleading. The achievement test scores of these GEDs show they're as smart as high school graduates, but they don't earn anywhere near what high school graduates earn because they lack persistence and motivation.

Most macroeconomists think of human capital as education, measured by years of school. Or if they're a little more sophisticated, they measure human capital by test scores like IQ or an achievement test. Neglected are all the noncognitive abilities that are produced by healthy families. Deficiencies in these skills can be partially remediated, as we know from the early intervention programs. Not completely remediated, but certainly gaps can be closed. The things we used to think of as soft and fuzzy have a real effect on behavior.

The importance of stories as contributors to non-cognitive capabilities -
But anyway, [Adam] Smith says people are basically born the same and at age 8 one can't really see much difference among them. But then starting at age 8, 9, 10, they pursue different fields, they specialize and they diverge. In his mind, the butcher and the lawyer and the journalist and the professor and the mechanic, all are basically the same person at age 8.

This is wrong. IQ is basically formed by age 8, and there are huge differences in IQ among people. Smith was right that people specialize after 8, but they started specializing before 8. On the early formation of human skill, I think Smith was wrong, although he was right about many other things. And Dimitriy and I said that in the speeches we gave while in Scotland last year. We wanted to be a little titillating. But I think these observations on human skill formation are exactly why the job training programs aren't working in the United States and why many remediation programs directed toward disadvantaged young adults are so ineffective. And that's why the distinction between cognitive and noncognitive skill is so important, because a lot of the problem with children from disadvantaged homes is their values, attitudes and motivations.

Cognitive skills such as IQ can't really be changed much after ages 8 to 10. But with noncognitive skills there's much more malleability. That's the point I was making earlier when talking about the prefrontal cortex. It remains fluid and adaptable until the early 20s. That's why adolescent mentoring programs are as effective as they are. Take a 13-year-old. You're not going to raise the IQ of a 13-year-old, but you can talk the 13-year-old out of dropping out of school. Up to a point you can provide surrogate parenting.

So, coming back to job training and other interventions targeted toward disadvantaged adolescents, mainstream discussions miss the basic economics of the skill formation process. When we understand how that works, that skills build on each other, it's very common-sensical. It's not just IQ, or achievement measured by a test. That's very hard for many economists to understand. There are interactions among IQ, cognitive ability as measured by an achievement test and noncognitive ability.

We tell stories in nursery school, such as the story of the tortoise and the hare and the story of the little train that could. I read these to my kids, and they were read to me. All these folk tales, all these pieces of wisdom, the fact that a mother's love matters and all this stuff, we tend to dismiss them in our formal models of education policy. We economists like to write down specific technologies and make things very precise. That's a useful discipline, and that's what I am doing with various coauthors. We are making this subject precise. But sometimes I have my doubts. Some of what economists do is to explain to fellow economists what most intelligent people already know. A lot of what economists do is explain to themselves what the rest of the world already knows. There's a real risk of being caught up in that.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reading with children

Sarah Crompton had a worth-a-read article in the July 20, 2005 Daily Telegraph, Why reading aloud brings us closer together.

What I notice as I sit listening with children is how much harder they concentrate on a heard story than a seen one. They can't cheat and follow the pictures to make sense of it, so they listen acutely. They ask questions, too: always relevant, though sometimes tangential. You can almost see their brains working.

But - and it is a big caveat - none of this works if the story is no good, if it has dull or over-earnest patches, or if it is badly read. Children are fierce judges of delivery, and if it is slow, patronising or somehow fails to catch their imagination, then they will dash upstairs and attempt to unearth the Gameboy.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


"Fathers don't fare well in the Newbery canon." - No they don't.

Interesting post from Peter at Collecting Children's Books blog. Scroll halfway down to get to his discussion of the profile of Dad's among the Newbery winners

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Edwin Muir - One Foot in Eden

One Foot in Eden
by Edwin Muir

One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
The world's great day is growing late,
Yet strange these fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate.
Time's handiworks by time are haunted,
And nothing now can separate
The corn and tares compactly grown.
The armorial weed in stillness bound
About the stalk; these are our own.
Evil and good stand thick around
In fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvest in.

Yet still from Eden springs the root
As clean as on the starting day.
Time takes the foliage and the fruit
And burns the archetypal leaf
To shapes of terror and of grief
Scattered along the winter way.
But famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.

A Recollection of Saki

In the Spring edition of Slightly Foxed, Rohan Candappa has an article Not Getting on with Aunts, recollecting the works of Saki. I have a collection of Saki's short stories that has been sitting on the shelf for years unread. This passage in the article prompts me to reach it down.
In 'Reginald on House Parties' our man about town reluctantly finds himself on a weekend shooting party in Dorsetshire: 'There's such a deadly sameness about partridges; when you've missed one you've missed the lot.' His hosts, unwisely, rib him about his inability to hit a bird at five yards - 'a sort of bovine ragging that suggested cows buzzing round a gadfly and thinking they were teasing it'.

By way of response, the next morning Reginald gets up early and hunts down the most conspicuous thing in the bird line that he can find. He measures five yards. He starts shooting. Then he gets the gardener's boy to drag the corpse into the hall where everyone will see it on their way in to breakfast.

His hosts are not impressed. The peacock was a pet. 'They said afterwards that it was a tame bird; that's simply silly, because it was awfully wild at the first few shots.'

Dumas' ghostwriter

Two articles out of British papers in the past few months tell the wonderful tale of a redeemed swashbuckler of a story from the hand of Alexandre Dumas.

Tim Martin in the Daily Telegraph tells the story of the discovery, recovery and completion of a lost Dumas novel.

Gerald Warner celebrates the The Last Cavalier and other swashbucklers of its ilk in the The Spectator.

Great quote from his final paragraph:

Novels of the swashbuckling school provided an effortless education in manners and morals, ornamented with plumed hats, cup-hilted rapiers and heaving bosoms. Boys who had, in spirit, scaled ivy-clad walls with a sword clenched between their teeth, swum the moat of the castle of Zenda, stormed aboard a pirate galleon, or galloped to safety with a rescued heroine perched precariously on their saddle needed no further schooling in honour, courage and respect for women.

Brueghel's Children's Games


Pieter Brueghel the elder, one of the old masters, painted in 1560 a painting titled Children's Games. In it he depicts children playing various games in a typical Netherlandish town square. This painting has always fascinated me for the implied cultural continuity in the West - you can easily recognize dozens of children's games that you or your parents played as a child and many of which our children do play on the play-ground today.

I came across a site from the University of Waterloo in Canada which has nice thumbnail sketch of the history and context of some thirty of the children's games represented in the picture.