February 18, 2013

How do you decide which books to read?

As it is Presidents Day, and I feel duty-bound to write something, but don't feel compelled to write  about Harrison the second at this exact minute, I am going to answer one of the questions I am most asked in regards to this blog, so that from now on I can point people to this post instead of answering them.

How do you decide which books to read?

I am surprised at how often I get asked this question, for many reasons. Mostly, I don't see how people can expect an interesting answer. I don't have a process that differs much from the one I use to decide what pants to buy. I kind of look around and then I pick. But, since you asked:

STEP 1: Consult my presidential 12" ruler to learn which president is next.

STEP 2: Type "{{that president's name}} biography" into Amazon.

STEP 3: Eliminate children's books, books that are not full biographies (ex: "The Year Franklin Pierce Bought a Horse"), books that have obvious agendas (ex: "Grover Cleveland: The Original Tea-Party President"), and books by Jon Meacham (never again).

STEP 4: Compare the remaining biographies

NOTE ON STEP 4: I feel most people who ask me this question are overestimating the American historical community and its readers. I am not wading through piles of potential biographies for each president. In most cases, there are one or two in print. In some cases, notably Franklin Pierce and Benjamin Harrison, a one-volume biography does not exist.

The eligible biographies are judged on the following criteria:

Length: My sweet spot is 300-600 pages. Shorter is a waste of time, longer is too boring, unless we're talking about a Roosevelt or Adams or someone who merits 1,000 pages. It's also important to remember than an Amazon page count usually includes about 100 pages of bibliography and notes.

Bias: I read apologists across the board, rather than the "Millard Filmore Killed America" types, but the length requirement usually rules those out anyway, because they're short and stupid.

Reputation: Glancing through the editorial and guest reviews gives an easy picture of whether or not a book was critically well-received. Presidential biography reviews are pretty fond of identifying the new biographies against the old ones, so direct comparisons come up a lot. This is helpful.

Publication Date: I usually read biographies that are less than 20 years ago. Firstly because those are the ones that are still in print. Secondly because the genre of biography has evolved into a more readable form so newer books are more fun.

Recommendation: Sometimes I get biography recommendations from other people. This has happened like two times. And one of them was from Edmund Morris.

ANOTHER NOTE ON STEP 4: Sometimes there are biographies of certain presidents that are indisputably the best. Having worked in bookstores for 10 years, I know about most of them. So, in the cases of John Adams (the David McCullough biography), Ulysses S. Grant (the Jean Edward Smith biography), or Teddy Roosevelt (the Edmund Morris trilogy), I just skip the first 4 steps and go to -

STEP 5: Buy the book (in a new tab, not from Amazon).

There you have it.


  1. I am amazed at how similar this is to my selection process, including the last part of Step 3, though I occasionally come up with different choices.

    I am currently plodding through an older bio, Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President, by Rayback.


  2. Short biographies of American Presidents: