Monday, 11 January 2010

52 for 2010 #1

Being a tireless practitioner of the art of self-improvement, I’ve set myself the task of reading a book a week in 2010. Such ambition! Such vision! Furthermore, I’ve decided that I’m finally going to make the effort to read some of those heavyweight authors that I’ve been putting off for so long: Cervantes, Tolstoy, Joyce et cetera. That ought to help rack up some humanity points; maybe I’ll even get into poetry?

It goes without saying that this is a project of no interest to anyone other than me, but regardless of that, I’m going to be posting regular updates on my progress, plus some hackneyed, third-rate meditations on what I’ve read.

So, without further ado, I present instalment one of 52 for 2010 (I’ll change the title as soon as I think of something good). Don’t enjoy it! Don’t even read it!

52 for 2012 – Part One

This week I finished reading Lincoln by Gore Vidal. It’s an 859 page historical novel following the United States’ 16th President from his inauguration in March 1861 to his assassination in April 1865. Mercifully, there are no bombastic accounts of Civil War battles; Vidal is more interested in the dealings of the political elite, not least the President himself, who lies at the heart of the book like an amiable sphinx. Despite the best efforts of his opponents (some of whom are senior members of his administration) Honest Abe manages to cling to power during one of the most volatile periods in US history by repeatedly outmanoeuvring everyone who stands against him, even as he cultivates his image as a vacillating dilettante. (As Vidal loves to remind us, the President’s hair is forever unkempt.)

Not surprisingly, the era’s ideologues come in for less favourable treatment. Radical abolitionists and would-be Confederate heroes alike are depicted as deluded poseurs, insulated from the reality of the political situation by an aura of self-regard. John Wilkes Booth and his allies appear to be motivated by nothing more than hackneyed dreams of glory; their ultimate fate is reported second hand by a former presidential secretary as he chats up a European princess. Those who loiter in the margins of history are forever at risk of being scribbled on.

Vidal strikes me as a slippery political commentator: it’s always perfectly clear where his sympathies lie, but the why is often more difficult to fathom. Is Lincoln a good president because he holds together the Union at a time of crisis or because he’s the most expert manipulator in Washington DC? Is the duplicitous Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P Chase, bad because of his relentless ambition or because he fails to fulfil it? Ah well, at least there are some jokes.

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