Craig Fehrman’s “Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote” starts with the very beginning of the country. The result of a decade’s worth of digging in libraries and archives, the book surveys two centuries of presidential authorship. “What I immediately realized was that this story was so much older than you could have expected,” Fehrman said. “Thomas Jefferson had the first campaign book; John Adams had the first presidential memoir.”
Lincoln, one of the presidency’s great writers, owed his 1860 victory in part to a campaign book, Fehrman said. “Lincoln was working on this book at a time when candidates wouldn’t put their names on books because it would be seen as arrogant and vain. From the time he was a boy, Lincoln understood that books mattered, that books could change the world, that books could bring ideas directly to readers and voters.”
In addition to surveying the presidents and their writing lives, Fehrman thought it was important to understand how publishing and reading have evolved. “One reason biographers have missed how important these books were is because they didn’t always understand how central books were to American culture,” he said. When researching Jefferson, Fehrman found another reader and book lover named Devereux Jarratt, a school teacher who lived in the same county as Thomas Jefferson but, lacking the Virginian’s vast library, would ride his horse several miles to borrow one book.
Good writers don’t always make good presidents, but good readers, Fehrman suggests, can make good citizens. “I think there’s no better time to read serious books than in an election year. I would love it if my book would inspire people to read a couple other books. It’s a great way to step away from the news cycle, to sit down with more developed thoughts and ideas.” After all, he added, “We have a really big decision to make ahead of us.”
Craig Fehrman will read at Harvard Book Store on Thursday at 7 p.m.