How Lincoln Learned to Read
Daniel Wolff examines the lives of 12 Americans and the educations that made them.
Wouldnâ€™t it be great if we could realize â€“ early in life â€“ what we needed to know in order to be successful? Or, more important, to make a positive difference in human affairs?
Since thatâ€™s impossible, maybe the more relevant question is: How do we make the best use of our upbringing and education?
Extraordinary Americans, history shows, have been â€śeducatedâ€ť in many different ways. And here, weâ€™re not talking just (or even mainly) about book-learning. For much of our history, formal education as we think of it today has been available to relatively few.
In How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans And The Education That Made Them, Daniel Wolff looks at a dozen people ranging chronologically from Benjamin Franklin to Elvis Presley, examining each oneâ€™s early life. His working premise is the one posed in â€śThe Education of Henry Adamsâ€ť a century ago: â€śWhat part of education has ... turned out to be useful and what not.â€ť
This is a terrific book. Itâ€™s compact (25 pages or so per individual) but rich and thought-provoking.
It draws heavily on each characterâ€™s own writing, mainly letters and diaries. It gave me new insights into great Americans I thought I knew pretty well, and it taught me much about those Iâ€™d barely heard of before.
Broad in scope, peppered with detail, insightful, it could be the basis for a classroom or book club review of American history from our founding as a nation through the 20th century.
â€śWhatever the particular circumstances, an American education is going to bear the marks of rebellion,â€ť Wolff writes, provocatively. With these 12 leading the way (and at a time when the early-life lessons of a new barrier-breaking US president have been examined in detail) thatâ€™s very worth considering. And it left me wondering what Wolff could have done with Oprah or Bill Gates or Yo-Yo Ma.
How about a sequel?
Brad Knickerbocker is a staff writer.