June 7, 2018 by libroshombre
Forever curious about how people thought and acted long ago, I’m a fiend for biographies, even though, as Abraham Lincoln, one of the most biographied people ever, said, “Biographies, as generally written, are not only misleading but false … In most instances, they commemorate a lie and cheat posterity out of truth.” History’s written by the victors, so it’s unsurprising that many biographies are pure hagiography and validate Abe’s assessments.
Nonetheless, incredibly informative and amusing biographies exist, and good biographers know that “Discretion is not the better part of biography,” as English biographer Lytton Strachey put it. A reader of multiple books at a time, my current biographies include“Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World,” “The Queen’s Conjuror: the Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Advisor to Queen Elizabeth I,” and “The Medicis.” And I keep returning to “How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Questions and Twenty Attempts at an Answer,” and that great autobiography, Samuel Pepys’ Diaries. It’s amazing how those old lives and events seem extremely contemporaneous to our own.
I’m also halfway through Ron Chernow’s 1,000-page “Grant,” thanks to Susan Stitham’s delightful Osher Lifelong Learning Institute class about him, and, like Chernow’s other biographies, it’s compelling. He won the National Book Award for “The House of Morgan,” his 812-page study of banker J.P. Morgan, because, as the NYTimes reviewer said, “the book has the movement and tension of an epic novel. It is, quite simply, a tour de force.” That’s how I felt about Chernow’s 928-page “Washington: a Life,” about which the American Spectator critic wrote, “Chernow achieves in this book that which is the highest attainment of any biographer: he makes his subject whole, multidimensional, and, above all, human. The reader sees not just what Washington did, but who he was – positive and negative,laudable and embarrassing.” Chernow created “a fresh portrait of Washington that will make him real, credible, and charismatic in the same way he was perceived by his contemporaries, to make his subject vivid and immediate.”
Living with a fast, analytical reader for 45 years has long plagued me, a plodding reader. So my heart warmed to Chernow, who confessed, “It’s a shameful thing to admit for someone who writes such long books, but I read so slowly I almost subvocalize … Also, I’m still a print dinosaur and like the tactile sensation of turning over pages.” Upon learning that auditions are underway for Fairbanks Light Opera Theater’s October production of “1776,” Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” tops my to-be-read pile. Few musicals have more lively scores, and “1776, ” also packs some marvelous political lessons.
After working for the U.S. State Department and Texas Legislature, and running public libraries for three decades, my tolerance for things political has worn thin. Being informed and involved is part of being a good citizen, and I do my bit, but tire of constantly encountering political neologisms. OK, “mediocracy” (rule by the mediocre) dates from 1845, and “wegotism” (the habit of using “we” when referring to oneself) was coined in 1797, but “youthquake” (significant changes arising from actions of young people) is the 2017 OxfordDictionaries.com word-of-the-year.
But it’s greenup, spring’s sprung and I’d prefer reflecting on “emuscation.” It’s “a useful word, albeit specialist,” according to WorldWideWords.org, which cites John Evelyn’s 1664 book, “Sylva: A Discourse of Forest Trees.” Of the emuscation process, Evelyn said, “Moss (which is an adnascent plant) is to be rubb’d and scrap’d off with some fit instrument of wood, which may not excorticate the tree, or with a piece of hair-cloth after a sobbing rain.”
“A plain English equivalent would be ‘de-moss,’ but Evelyn was never one for the brief and homely term when a Latinate extravagancy was possible,” WorldWideWords.org stated. Besides, “adnascent” (something that grows on something else), in the same passage Evelyn used “excorticate” (remove bark from trees), “ablaqueation” (loosening soil around roots), “decubation” (lying down), and “stercoration” (manuring with dung).
Students of Evelyn’s interesting life know that “Sylvan” was written to encourage English gentlemen to plant trees to build future British navies. You can read about him at the public library, our historical repository. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “There is properly no history; only biography.”