...the resulting tower would be twice as tall as the Empire State Building.
We're talking about something close to 20,000 books.
Steve Kuusisto and his wife Connie were in the neighborhood visiting Connie's folks for the holidays and Sunday night when I was on the phone with Steve arranging to meet him for lunch the next day I mentioned what I'd read in H.R. Brands' new biography of Franklin Roosevelt, that Roosevelt "rarely read books."
Steve was as flabbergasted by this news as Pop Mannion and I had been. He refused to believe it and he said he knew just the person to call to get the real scoop. Steve's friends with Jeff Urbin, the education specialist at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Steve rang up Jeff and Jeff invited us out to Hyde Park to see for ourselves just how much books mattered to FDR. So yesterday afternoon, Steve and his guide dog Nira and I found ourselves standing in FDR's study admiring the floor to ceiling bookshelves packed with hundreds of books that amount to a bare fraction of all the books Roosevelt collected in his lifetime.
Jeff told us that that collection began when Roosevelt was a boy.
He always loved books.
Roosevelt founded, funded, and had a hand in the designing of the first Presidential library, his library, which is on the grounds of the family estate at Hyde Park. When the library opened in June of 1941, the Presidential library was the President's library; the whole of the collection was made up of FDR's own books, which Roosevelt himself estimated amounted to between 15,000 and 18,000 volumes.
Jeff said that for a long time the staff of the museum thought that might be a little on the high side. Roosevelt was known to embellish from time to time, Jeff said. But when a thorough inventory of the collection was finally done, it turned out that there were upwards of 20,000. That's when someone figured out, using the size of an average history book, that stacked up, FDR's books would rise twice as high as the Empire State Building.
It's extremely unlikely that even if Roosevelt was the most voracious reader to ever occupy the White House he read all those books. In fact, it may not be accurate to say that he read any of them. Brands' statement that Roosevelt rarely read books should be revised. According to Jeff, Roosevelt rarely read books cover to cover.
He was what Jeff calls a spot-reader. He dipped in and out of books as his moods or his interests or his research needs took him. In a way he treated his library as a library and the books in it, the books of poetry, the histories, the treatises, his favorites, the books about the sea and sailing ships, as reference books. He returned to favorite chapters and passages again and again. He looked things up to jog his memory or flesh out a speech or get help figuring something out.
A spot-reader of 20,000 books, Jeff was willing to bet, was better read than whole departments-ful of English professors.
Steve, by the way, is a professor in the English Department at the University of Iowa.
He did not take Jeff's bet.
There it is then. The reason I thought FDR was a voracious reader is that he was. But he was, like all lovers of books, idiosyncratic. He loved to read but he read in his own way. Which makes this a good spot to work in a comment the ever-enchanting Enchanting Juno left on Sunday night's post:
Book geeks, a category in which I place my self as well, tend to think that this quality we admire in ourselves is a indicator of something, but the truth is that there are as many kinds of readers as there are people reading books. As a generality it is as useful, and as foolish, as any other.
Reading can be a reflection of a desire for knowledge, an appreciation of language, a love of stories, a desire to look smart, a feeling of inadequacy, an intellectual shield. We can hide in books, use them, suck them dry, skim them, change ourselves, reinforce ourselves, find truth, find lies...
I think it's safe to categorize FDR as book geek.