I want to read a biography of each president to feel better, or much much worse


Sometime after seeing Hamilton last summer—cough, humblebrag, cough—I came up with an ambitious reading idea, so ambitious that I shelved it for some future month/year, in which I might theoretically have a surplus of time and a deficit of new reality shows to watch. (Other such ideas postponed indefinitely: reading all of the books from a “Best 100 Books of All Time” list; reading every No. 1 New York Times bestseller for a year; actually finishing Infinite Jest.)

Hamilton is fantastic, and I’ll spare you the unnecessary piling on of compliments here. But outside of its amazingness, the show also prompted me (and many others) to pick up the biography on which it’s based, a tome by Ron Chernow that inspired Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda when he read it on vacation. Now, in the interest of full transparency: I haven’t actually started that biography yet, but it does occupy a prime spot in my apartment’s hierarchy of book piles—it could very well get read this decade. More important though, Chernow got me thinking: What if I tried to read one biography of each president, in order, starting with George Washington? 

Mind you, this was August 2015—sweet, innocent August 2015. Donald Trump had entered the presidential race just two months earlier, announcing his candidacy with a rambling speech that made the whole idea just seem so silly, so improbable. “Today, Donald Trump became the second major Republican candidate to announce for president in two days,” DNC spokeswoman Holly Shulman snarked the day after the announcement. “He adds some much-needed seriousness that has previously been lacking from the GOP field, and we look forward to hearing more about his ideas for the nation.”

Who’s laughing now, Holly? Who’s laughing now.

In the week since Trump won, I’ve veered between wanting to read every historical book that might contextualize or explain this madness, and wanting to read only Harry Potter, start to finish, over and over again until the four years are up. In the grand scheme of things, actually embarking upon the Presidential Book Journey seems like a solid compromise.

So here are the terms: 45 books, for 45 presidents, completed by the end of Trump’s first (only???) term. That’s just under 12 presidential biographies per year, which seems like enough to identify patterns and insights, but not so many that I start to resent August 2015 Kira for thinking this was a good idea (I already resent her for being so damn naive). I’ll read up on a few options for each biography, and choose the one that seems most compelling (i.e. not always the most comprehensive, academic, or commercial). If I’m overcome by the compulsion to read more than one book for any given president, I’ll…..be very surprised with myself? But will abide that impulse. I’m not sure how far in advance I’ll pick each bio, but I’ll endeavor to give some advance notice for anyone looking to follow along (masochism loves company!) All posts tied to the project will be tagged. And I’m starting, appropriately, with Chernow’s other major biography, Washington: A Life.

I don’t know what, if anything, I’ll glean from the PBJ (heh). Maybe it’ll make a Trump presidency seem manageable—after all, America has been through some shit. Or maybe it’ll highlight the insanity anew, making me long for a George Washington or an FDR as much as I anticipate longing for Obama. Probably somewhere in between. Either way, I bet I’m going to become really annoying at cocktail parties.

10 thoughts on “I want to read a biography of each president to feel better, or much much worse”

  1. That actually sounds like a very worthy reading project! Nothing mad about it and I think particularly the first presidents would be very interesting in their (for our times: colourful) historical context.

    Though, of the modern days presidents – think Bush, Carter, Clinton – those might be rather … dull, and more and more uniform, maybe apart from Ronald Reagan. Not because I liked Reagan but because his Hollywood years are in such a biography, too …

      1. I feel you, but project doesn’t have the same ring to it if I skip all the boring guys. So I guess keep me in your thoughts! 🙂

      2. I wish you enough patience – and who knows, the seemingly dull guys might even have their surprises up their sleeves for you! After all they say Still Waters run deep.

  2. Most folks can’t even name all the presidents. Your plan is striking. Can we get some little-known facts about them? Or maybe some WWTrumpDo comparisons for each?

  3. I know that I have already read bios of a few of them, and have found them fascinating, especially when the personal stories are placed in the context of each individual’s time, politically, socially, technologically, etc.. Their families and how each was placed among them are especially telling, I think. For that reason alone, I’m looking forward to your tidbits posts from each book. And, as a matter of fact, the Hamilton tome now sits atop my non-fiction reading pile, partly because it’s a paperback that I hope won’t way my holiday travel luggage down too much!

  4. Great idea. I got interested in reading something about Churchill after watching a lot of WWII stuff and settled on a collection of ‘anecdotes’ by Boris Johnson. I had no idea that Trump’s British soul-mate, former Mayor of London and Brexit supporter had been a journalist in a previous life. Not a bad writer either. I’m sure we can’t expect any inspirational- or even coherent- books from the Trumpster. He needed a ghost writer to write one long puff piece about himself.

  5. What an awesome idea for a reading list. I’m a little jealous I didn’t think of it first. And here I was all proud of myself for having read one of Hillary Clinton’s and one of Trump’s books.

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