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Passion for the pages

June 4, 2011

In early April, the Theodore Roosevelt Association posted a note on its Facebook page, asking “Ever Wonder What Roosevelt Liked to Read?”

“Oh, yes,” I replied aloud. “I’m always interested.”

The note began, “In 1905, a contributor to The Century Magazine (1881-1930), reported a two-year ‘pretty full, but far from complete’ list of what the president had read (or reread), ‘purely for enjoyment’. The list did not include all the books, magazines and papers the president had to read in the daily course of the nation’s business. The list included 83 different authors and approximately a couple hundred volumes, estimating TR devoured 35,000 pages a year or about 100 pages a day. …”

In the book “When Trumpets Call,” Patricia O’Toole explored Roosevelt’s life after his presidency, beginning with his March 1909 African safari. The account includes one of the more famous examples of Roosevelt’s love for books: the so-called Pigskin Library. It was, she wrote, a collection of about 50 volumes “to be taken apart, trimmed at the margins, and bound anew in pigskin, the material he thought most likely to withstand the beating of a year on safari.” Roosevelt stored the books in an alumnium container, and the whole collection weighed less than 60 pounds.

During the expedition “TR read with the intensity he gave to everything else,” O’Toole wrote, “his wattage focused on the book. He read before going to sleep at night, on rainy afternoons, aboard trains and ships, and whenever he needed a few minutes’ escape. The Pigskin Library was stocked with reading matter that took time to ingest,” including Homer, Dante, novels by Walter Scott, poetry from Keats and Browning, the works of Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Dickens, and works in their original French, German or Italian — languages in which he was fairly fluent. “He always carried a book into the field, reading under a tree during the noonday halt or next to a fresh kill as he waited” for the team that skinned his safari trophies.

The library would grow as the intense weeks and months in Africa passed, absorbing works from Montaigne, Cervantes and Charles Darwin, among many others. In “Colonel Roosevelt,” Edmund Morris wrote that by mid-August, the “intense physicality of Africa so stimulates (Roosevelt) intellectually that he has already read most of his Pigskin Library — some covers stained with blood, oil, ashes and sweat till they look like saddle leather.”

Volume 14 of the Memorial Edition of “The Works of Theodore Roosevelt” collected his literary essays, including one on the Pigskin Library (page 463). “[The books] were for use,” Roosevelt wrote, “not ornament. I almost always had some volume with me, either in my saddle-pocket or in the cartridge-bag which one of my gun-bearers carried to hold odds and ends. Often my reading would be done while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I had killed, or else while waiting for camp to be pitched …”

Like the many books he took on other long trips, there were no complex reasons for selecting the books he took to Africa. “The choice,” he recalled in the essay, “would largely depend upon what I had just been reading.” Collections of German poetry would inspire Roosevelt to take more German poetry. Essays on Greek history would inspire him to take works by Polybius, the Greek historian. Reading Melville’s “Typee” would inspire him to read “Moby Dick” once again.

Having offered a casual list of his favorite books, Roosevelt’s essay segued into comments on Harvard President Charles Eliot’s then-recently published 50-volume Harvard Classics. “Let me repeat,” he said near the end of his observations, “that Mr. Eliot’s list is a good list, and that my protest is merely against the belief that it is possible to make any list of the kind which shall be more than a list as good as many scores or many hundreds of others.” Eliot’s list seemed too stuffy and too bland for Roosevelt, who loved funny novels as much as dense classical texts. “There are many thousands of good books” Roosevelt concluded, “and any list of such books should simply be accepted as meeting a given individual’s needs under given conditions of time and surroundings.”

I think Roosevelt sometimes saw himself as the perfect intellectual and moral example for his countrymen to follow on their march into the new century. Throughout his strenuous life, Roosevelt felt starved not only for the culture, literature, landscape and character of his own nation and society but for the world’s as well. If Americans were to emerge as the new leaders of the international community, they had to push themselves farther and expand their intellects beyond borders, oceans and languages, just like he had done. An expansive and ravenous intellect was, for Roosevelt, the foundation for a fully formed citizen of the world — certainly far too big to be limited to petty and proper Harvard book lists. Like him, that citizen was always reaching out for more, desperate to taste new writers, new opinions, and new challenges to preconceived notions. Life was too short — and too much fun — for anything less.


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