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“We are what we read”: 4 lessons from David McCullough

October 11, 2011

Published in The Christian Science Monitor

David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author – most recently – of “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” imparted words of wisdom to a sold-out crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall last week. Here are four pieces of advice from McCullough.

1. “Understand the past.”

“Nothing of consequence is ever accomplished alone. America is a joint effort,” insisted the author of “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” “1776,”John Adams,” and seven other books. “There’s no such thing as a self-made man or self-made woman.”

Parents, teachers, friends, enemies, and even people we never knew affect our everyday lives, successes, and failures. The writers of the books we read particularly influence us. McCullough pointed out how truisms promulgated by Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes some 400 years ago inhabit our everyday language today.

“We are what we read,” McCullough said. “We get our ideas from what we read. So it’s extremely important when we try to understand the past, and the characters of the past, to not only read what they wrote, but to read what they read.”

2. “Keep a diary.”

“Nobody writes letters anymore, and very few people keep diaries,” lamented McCullough, though then he joked, “And people in the public life wouldn’t dare keep dairies. They’d be subpoenaed.”

The historian used the personal hand-written artifacts of Charles Sumner, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Roosevelt, and countless others to research his books. Perhaps he’s just old-fashioned – McCullough still uses a manual typewriter to pen his books – but a lot of his work really doesn’t involve technology such as the Internet, he said. Many of the original letters and journals by our nation’s early founders and thinkers aren’t available from a home computer, rather, they’ve been scanned on microfilm and housed in libraries.

“If any of you are interested in immortality, start keeping a diary,” McCullough quipped. Then, when you feel your days are numbered, donate it to your favorite library. “It will be quoted for hundreds of years by future historians, because it will be the only diary [of our era].”

3. Remember: “Nothing ever happened in the past. It happened in the present.”

The master historian reminds us that there is no limit to what we can learn from studying our past, but, he said, it’s important to remember a few principles when studying the subject:

“Nothing ever happened in the past. It happened in the present. Somebody else’s present.” McCullough used an example to illustrate his point: “I’m always annoyed when I hear people talking about the past and they say, ‘Well, that was a simpler time.’ Nonsense, there were no simpler times.”

In fact, our ancestors most likely had is much worse than us. “Abigail Adams wrote that future generations will scarcely be able to imagine the suffering and hardships of their forbearers,” quoted McCullough.

4. Read these books.

When an audience member asked McCullough to list “three books everyone should read,” the author hesitated. “It’s an impossible question.”

After a moment of deliberation, he declared Michael Shaara’s Gettysburg story “The Killer Angels,” “a good biography of George Washington” (perhaps Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” or “His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph Ellis would fit the bill), and “Tender Is The Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald as his impromptu top three.

The books reflect “important people and times to know about,” said the author. Of course, he added, everyone should read his books too.

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