Happy Birthday, Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt readingToday is Dylan Thomas’s birthday, and Sylvia Plath’s, and Zadie Smith’s… the book blogosphere is practically melting from all those virtual candles. Happy birthday to those literary lights, and thanks for all the good writing.

But Theodore Roosevelt was also born on this day, 156 years ago: police commissioner, governor, president, soldier, naturalist/hunter, explorer, one of those larger-than-life personalities whom everyone carries around as a caricature in their head. I worked for a couple of years at the American Museum of Natural History, where Roosevelt loomed large in the corporate culture—his father was one of the museum’s founders, and TR did a whole lot of shooting and killing so that we can gaze fondly on the taxidermized fruits of his labor today. He’s got an entire smallish wing of the museum to himself, and a statue out front.

He was also a serious man of letters—maybe not, canon-wise, up there with his fellow birthday celebrants, but he wrote and he read. He read a lot. Two or three books a day, legend has it.

I’ve never been able to wrap my head around how people can do that. Like hearing that John Wayne smoked four packs of cigarettes a day—what, exactly, are the mechanics of it? But then I’m not a particularly fast reader, so I just think of someone like Roosevelt as a different breed of animal and leave it at that.

One thing he did have, however, was a reading philosophy, and that makes the sheer numbers a little more comprehensible. If you’re going to indulge in feats of literary consumption, you might as well have some theory behind it. This past summer Book Riot re-ran Roosevelt’s top ten rules for reading, and they pleased me so much I remembered them today. It’s nice to see that all this anxiety that seems to be prevalent lately—about which books to read, and how many, and what you’re reading that you shouldn’t be and what you shouldn’t be that you are, isn’t unique to this age of Goodreads and blogs and literary forums. Number one, for instance:

The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.

And my favorite, at the top of the list:

The room for choice is so limitless that to my mind it seems absurd to try to make catalogues which shall be supposed to appeal to all the best thinkers. This is why I have no sympathy whatever with writing lists of the One Hundred Best Books, or the Five-Foot Library. It is all right for a man to amuse himself by composing a list of a hundred very good books… But there is no such thing as a hundred books that are best for all men, or for the majority of men, or for one man at all times.

I don’t much like neuroticism any which way, but especially when it comes to books—reading outside of work or school is supposed to be fun, freeing, and relaxing even if it’s challenging. Whenever I see people treating it as a kind of rarefied sport, or stressing over the size of their to-be-read piles, it makes me uncomfortable. They’re just… books. They shouldn’t make a body unhappy. I’m not 100% a fan of Teddy Roosevelt’s bully-bully bravado, but I like his take on the reading life.

And since we’re in the season to invoke Edgar Allan Poe (you didn’t think I was going to miss a chance, did you?), I leave you with one more:

Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls “the mad pride of intellectuality,” taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.

Happy birthday, TR.

(Photo of Theodore Roosevelt reading a book with his dog Skij on his lap in Colorado, April 1905, courtesy of AP.)


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