A Book about Presidents You'll Actually Want to Read during a Drawn-out Election Season

Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote | Craig Fehrman | Avid Reader Press

At the moment, the mere sight or sound of the word “president” makes me queasy.

(And no, I haven’t watched the debating Democratic candidates; you’d have to put me in a strait-jacket first.) But I’ve found at least temporary solace in an unexpected place, Craig Fehrman’s Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote.

Everything in this book is good: the title, the dedication—“To Candice, Henry, and Maisie, the best readers (or soon-to-be readers) I know”—the epigraphs (from Bess Truman and Marilynne Robinson, possibly the first time they have appeared on the same page), the “note on quotations,” and the table of contents (savor those chapter-titles). And all this comes before page one! By the time you start reading the introduction, you know you are in the hands of a superb writer who combines attention to detail (nothing is too “trivial” to do well) with a sharp sense of irony and a genial wit. 

It’s fitting that Author in Chief is published by Avid Reader Press, an imprint—new to me—of Simon & Schuster. I have to admit that I don’t like the name; it sounds boosterish. (Imagine wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed “Avid Reader.” Ugh.) But in fact, Author in Chief is as much about readers and reading as it is about presidents-as-authors. Those presidents were readers before they became authors; what they read—and the ecology of reading, let’s call it, that prevailed in their lifetime—shaped what they wrote. Author in Chief is in part a history of reading and publishing in the United States, belonging on the same shelf that includes titles as various as Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books and Beth Barton Schweiger’s A Literate South: Reading Before Emancipation.

Along with providing a sharper sense of American “public discourse” from the Founding to the present, Author in Chiefdoes of course shed light on many of our presidents, from the most famous to the relatively obscure. Among my favorite chapters (none disappoint) was the one devoted to Harry Truman (Chapter 10), which includes a surprising appearance by Toni Morrison. There are points I disagree with here. Fehrman takes a familiar line, for instance, on “the divide between scholars and storytellers” characterizing American historians, especially “during the 1980s and 1990s.” I think talk about this “divide,” its alleged causes and consequences, obscures more than it clarifies. But Fehrman has a lot of company on his side. In any case, his account of Truman’s background, his outlook, and the tortuous process of writing his memoirs is a masterpiece of concision and illuminating detail.

You must have in your circles of love and acquaintance some avid readers of history (and perhaps some with a special fondness for presidential history). Don’t wait until Christmas. Buy a couple of extra copies of Fehrman’s book as gifts, along with one for yourself.

John Wilson is Contributing Editor for the Englewood Review of Books. His essays and reviews have appeared in Books & Culture, Christianity TodayFirst ThingsCommonwealThe Christian CenturyNational ReviewThe Weekly Standard, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and other publications. He and his wife, Wendy, live in Wheaton, Illinois, where they are members of Faith Evangelical Covenant Church.

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