I may finish one or two more books before the end of the year, but it’s close enough for me to recap my reading time for 2019. As with 2018, I had set my reading goal at 75 books for the year. I made that goal, and then some. The 75 book threshold has become my norm despite reading well over 100 books each of the two years prior to 2018. The idea is that I would read slightly less and write more. As with last year, it’s questionable whether there is actually a correlation given that I published books in the busier years and none in my “writing” years. In any case, 2019 was a big year for Abraham Lincoln.
In last year’s update I lamented reading fewer Lincoln books than the years before, both in total numbers and percentages. This year saw the opposite occur. Lincoln-related books dominated my reading, with about 37% of my reading being about or related to our 16th president. One major factor in this increase was becoming a member of the Abraham Lincoln Institute book award review committee. My three distinguished colleagues and I each reviewed close to a dozen books and will shortly vote on which should receive the award during the 2020 ALI symposium at Ford’s Theatre.
Among the Lincoln books read (both for ALI and my usual reading) were All The Powers of Earth, the third volume of Sidney Blumenthal’s epic Political Life of Abraham Lincoln series (five volumes are planned), We Saw Lincoln Shot by Timothy S. Good, and The Black Heavens: Abraham Lincoln and Death by Brian Dirck. Lincoln-related books include the Pulitzer-winning Frederick Douglass by David Blight and Monument Man by Harold Holzer. I also read Frederick Douglass’s own first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.
Slavery and racism were common themes in several other books I read this year. The War Before the War by Andrew Delbanco examined the presence and discord of slavery from pre-Revolutionary War through the outbreak of the Civil War. Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. looked at the reconstruction through Jim Crow eras, which saw the practical re-enslavement and oppression of black Americans. Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist brings us to the present day and the importance of dealing with the reemergence of overt racism and discrimination in our society. The combination of these three books gave me both a broader understanding of the history of slavery and racism in this country, and the crime of its remaining presence.
Science was well covered in my reading. American Eclipse by David Baron chronicled the full solar eclipse of 1878 witnessed by, among others, Thomas Edison. For Small Creatures Such as We is a memoir/tips for finding meaning by Sasha Sagan, daughter of astrophysicist, Cosmos star, and innovative science communicator, Carl Sagan. Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg is a memoir of both its author and the Grey Parrot that she trained to communicate. In Search of the Canary Tree is another scientist, Lauren E. Oakes, studying Alaska’s disappearing old growth forests. The epic The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf reveals one of the most important scientists in our history that most people have never heard of.
Getting out and about influenced some of my reading decisions. Prior to a trip to Cuba I read two books of essays on Cuba plus Rick Steves’s Travel As A Political Act. After finally seeing the musical Hamilton in Chicago this September I read the Ron Chernow book on which it was based (and wished I had read the book before seeing the musical).
On the Fiction side, I decided that 2019 would be the year I finally read the Harry Potter series. I had read the first book a year or two ago, so I read all six remaining books this year. They didn’t disappoint. I also decided to read some Shakespeare. Yes, I know that most people read Shakespeare in high school or college, but as a science major with a side hustle in history I never got around to reading more than a couple. This year I decided that had to change so I read Macbeth and Hamlet and enjoyed both (although reading poetry and plays remains difficult for me).
Interestingly, five of my fiction books turned out to be about Abraham Lincoln. Topics ranged from his relationships with Mary Lincoln and Joshua Speed to his boyhood to his love affairs. The two I most enjoyed were President Lincoln’s Spy by Steven Wilson (murder mystery) and The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter (exceptionally well-written alternative history – what if Lincoln had survived the assassination attempt and failed to prosecute reconstruction to the liking of radical Republicans?)
There is more, of course. I keep track of my reading on Goodreads, so feel free to check out my Goodreads author page where I also have links to my own books.
You can also join my Facebook author page for updates and links to interesting articles.
So how many books should I read in 2020? I’ve again set my challenge goal at 75 books, and for largely the same reasons as the previous two years. As I noted in my “Year in a Writer’s Life,” I have several books I’m writing and will be working harder on magazine publishing. The 75 books should give me a high enough goal to capture at least some of the hundreds of books on my reading list (and dozens more I add during the year) while still leaving me some time to travel and write.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.