What a Revolutionary War Hero Can Teach Us About How to Read

Recently, Bill Gates released his 5 Good Summer Reads. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is on the list, a recommendation I couldn’t agree with more – and in fact have gifted to several people this year. As I begin to form my own list of books that I will read with my children this summer, I am struck by the role not just of books in shaping our lives, but in the role of the people who recommend them.

Ardent readers can often tell you who their book mentor was—that parent, teacher, friend, colleague, cousin, neighbor, or librarian who recommended particular books to an eager mind often not knowing precisely whether or not the words would spark an intellectual journey. But they offered ideas, culled from the seemingly infinite list of books available, for those special few that might feed a particular person’s interests.

When Alexander Hamilton’s mother died, for example, all Hamilton had left of her were thirty-four books, “including Plutarch and Pope, that had been his beloved childhood companions,” according to Myron Magnet, author of The Founders at Home.

For the great American Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene, best known for helping drive Cornwallis out of South Carolina (and back to Britain), there were numerous hands passing him books beginning in his teen years. Greene learned much about political philosophy and war by becoming an avid book reader in his later teens and twenties. But he didn’t do it alone. As a young boy, Greene—the son of a Quaker minister—is believed to have had access to very few books other than the Bible and he wasn’t encouraged to engage in broader reading, according to several biographies.

Then came a chance encounter at seventeen with a young college student who began to feed him select books and with them, ideas. He became knowledgeable about the writings of classical Roman authors such as Seneca, Horace, and Euclid. By his early twenties he was reading any book that came within his grasp, including the works of Jonathan Swift, and writers of the English Augustan age, according to William Johnson, author of Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene. Eventually he moved on to law dictionaries and commentaries, as well as military books by Plutarch and Julius Caesar.

Even when Greene was working as a smith, he sought to expand his book holdings by spending his earnings at a bookstore. But he didn’t know which book to choose until, the story goes, Ezra Stiles stepped forward to offer some suggestions. Stiles, a Newport minister, would eventually become the president of Yale University and was a founder of the college that would become Brown University. A retelling of their first meeting by Greene’s grandson, which some consider more folktale than fact, describes it this way:

His ignorance and inability to choose with a consciousness of his very limited capacity to gratify a choice rushed so forcibly upon his recollection when the question, What book? was proposed to him that his embarrassment was extreme. Stiles saw it and benevolently resolved to relieve him. He knew human nature and gradually insinuated himself into the confidence of the abashed boy until he drew from him sufficient information to direct his choice.

Whether or not they truly met in the bookstore and the exchange described by the grandson is entirely accurate, Greene and Stiles formed a deep friendship. It is believed that he introduced Greene to John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, which he read as the colonists started on their road to war against Britain. William Johnson called these types of friendships “boons from heaven.”

Today, however, schools recommend a more homogeneous and contemporary list of books to their students, according to The National Association of Scholars, which recently released its Beach Books 2017 list. The report notes: “Many common readings discuss books of which a film or television version exists, an increasing number are graphic novels or memoirs, many have a protagonist under eighteen or are simply young-adult novels, and a significant number have an association with National Public Radio (NPR).”

This summer, whether you find yourself on a beach or in the book shop, instead of relying on reading committee recommendations, offer a child that you know a book that you think might act as an intellectual spark specifically for him or her. When rightly selected, these books aren’t necessarily life-changing, but as Nathanael Greene’s experience shows, they can be life-beginning, opening a world of ideas to a hungry young mind.

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