The Best Book of Biographies: Great Lives, Great Deeds

“We were knowledgeable enough to verify our information, reverent enough to respect the deeds of a hero without trying to deconstruct his every molecule, and still innocent enough to believe in heroic, altruistic, moral duty. We don’t live there anymore as a society and it would benefit us to look back at some of what was good about that era.” — Amanda Stiver

hat and artifacts on map

Image: Amanda Stiver

HAVING taken a break from talking history for a while, I come back in the midst of missing Malaysian airliners, war in the Crimea, tensions in the Israeli corridor, tragic shootings on a U.S. military base, ongoing economic sticky-messes, inept political leadership, earthquakes in California and Chile, and buffalo running a-muck in Yellowstone National Park… so more of the same, only different.

As always, or this site wouldn’t be called “HistoryGal,” I tend to look back to get a little perspective on the future. One of my favorite sources (parents and home-based teachers, this one’s a great resource) is a chubby collection of biographies by that superb purveyor of condensed books of old, Reader’s Digest. Titled Great Lives, Great Deeds it contains over 80 short biographies of famous individuals.

True enough, modern scholarship may make some of the information outdated, but generally the basics are accurate. Remember that all history rises and falls on the bias of those writing it, even current authors.

WHAT I love most of all about this book is the stirring way in which history was written. I consider it the golden age of American historiography (mid-20th century). We were knowledgeable enough to verify our information, reverent enough to respect the deeds of a hero without trying to deconstruct his every molecule, and still innocent enough to believe in heroic, altruistic, moral duty. We don’t live there anymore as a society and it would benefit us to look back at some of what was good about that era.

Of particular note in Great Lives, Great Deeds are the biographies of American revolutionary heroes. The account of Paul Revere, “The Midnight Rider,” by Esther Forbes is stunning. An excerpt, like much of Reader’s Digest material, it is from a larger work I have not yet read, but plan to. A very short sample:

“They who had so recently seen the stocky, benevolent old gentleman walking the streets of Boston could hardly have guessed that he was destined forever to ride a foaming charger, his face enveloped in the blackness of a famous night, to become in time hardly a man at all–only a hurry of hoofs in a village street, a voice in the dark, a knock on a door, a disembodied spirit crying the alarm–an American patriot who, on a moonlit night in 1775, started out on a ride which, in a way, has never ended,” (Great Lives, Great Deeds, Reader’s Digest Association, 1964, pg. 272).

THIS kind of history moves, the writing has electricity and it stirs us to greater devotions of our own, whatever the cause is to which we are devoted (we all need one by the way, preferably a good one). This kind of stirring writing is not unlike the Bible accounts of the great heroes, and sometimes anti-heroes, of the Israelite world and environs. When most people think of the Bible, they think of stories (hopefully not films like the recent non-version of Noah) and characters. This one did this deed, that one fought that war, this one stood up to this dictator, etc…

I like to talk about gateways to history. Interesting ways in which we can pique our curiosity and gain an appreciation for and desire to learn from history. Biographies are a fantastic gateway. They give you enough of a story flow to sink your teeth into, while still filling in historical details of one era or another that by the end of a biography you will find that you are somewhat of a burgeoning expert on a small section of the historical timeline!

SO if you can find a used copy of Great Lives, Great Deeds to add to  your shelf (it is out of print) then do so (it also makes a great bathroom reader). There are many other historical characters of note to get acquainted with like Winston Churchill, Simon Bolivar, Edith Cavell, Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Patrick Henry, George Washington… and many more.

Find a copy and make an exploration of history, person by person.

And as always–keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

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