Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Why David McCullough Matters: An Essay

If history is any indication, David McCullough's most recent book, The Wright Brothers, might also be his last. Having published his first book almost a half-century ago, McCullough has averaged one every four to five years, a process that he undertakes in a small cottage behind his home on Martha's Vineyard. Each book is laboriously researched, often in the halls of the Library of Congress, and McCullough crafts each page not with a computer or army of assistants but a simple typewriter, a process that he refuses to change. And in the half-century that he has plugged away at that typewriter, he has collected a myriad of prizes and accolades, and he is one of the few writers of history whose books are instant bestsellers, despite the fact that his style--verbose, almost prose-poetic passages that dwell on the most technical of subjects, sometimes for chapters at a time--resists the trends of the day that demand writers create works of history that read more like novels, regardless of the liberties that must be taken to accomplish this. Instead, McCullough's writing drips with meticulousness, with the ink of a man who has allowed primary documents to seep into his skin and down into the dark ribbons of his machine, and his words are never suspect. We know that, when we read McCullough, we are reading history pure and true, and everything on the page--every scrap of dialogue, every insinuation and deduction--is based in fact and fact alone.

Now 82 years old, McCullough still possesses the same skills and insights that have made him America's greatest living writer of history--possibly the greatest in our lifetimes--a fact clearly demonstrated by The Wright Brothers, which is 300-plus pages and enthralling throughout. But with the knowledge that, some day soon, we may lose McCullough to the very history that he so clearly loves, we must understand just why it is that this one writer, beside so many others, is so universally revered and so sadly irreplaceable. Why is it that, when McCullough passes from our midst, we will be left with a yawning emptiness in our society and culture that cannot be filled? And, once we understand that, how can we guarantee that such an emptiness does not remain for long?

To understand the importance of David McCullough, you must first understand the research. Turn to the back of any of McCullough's books, and you will find yourself with a testament as to why its author is deserving of reverence:  a detailed list of sources, almost all of which are firsthand documents culled from the vast collections of libraries and historical societies. For The Wright Brothers, McCullough read hundreds of lengthy and often technical letters between the brothers, members of their immediate family, friends, confidants, experts, colleagues, doubters, detractors, and even strangers. He quotes long-forgotten newsletters, newspaper articles more than a century old, and meditative books long out of print. At no point does his prose depend on the weak credibility of secondhand accounts, contemporary postulations, or exultant propaganda. What's more, if the information he wishes to convey doesn't appear in any of these sources--that is to say, if a fact long thought to be true is instead discovered to be little more than a modern fabrication, an apocryphal story, an anecdote with no basis in history--he debunks it before our eyes, and with unwavering assuredness, before swiftly moving on. McCullough has neither the time nor the patience for manufactured truth, regardless of its purpose or effects, and he desires the same attitude from us. In McCullough's world, and rightfully so, there is no room for false idols on the altar of history.

All of which makes him an anomaly in today's publishing world. Almost all of the "historical nonfiction" books published in any given year approach their topics as though subjects of bestselling paperbacks or Hollywood screenplays:  emphasis is placed on the thrilling and more lurid aspects of the story, and much of what matters--the quiet, contemplative moments of maturation and revelation that are often conducted away from public view--are discarded as unimportant, difficult to research, or downright dull. Historical figures become characters who are developed in much the same fashion as fictional creations, with one-chapter backstories, exaggerated inner turmoil, and scandalous personal lives that are bestowed with the same level of importance as their actual accomplishments. What's more, authors often grant themselves authority over their subjects' inner identities by fabricating otherwise unrecorded thoughts or focusing on what their subject must have surely been feeling at a specific time and place, despite the fact there are no historical records of any kind to support these supposed facts...all of which is evidenced when, flipping to the back of these books, we find not a thorough bibliography but instead a list of secondary sources that runs for a dozen pages, at most. (Sometimes, a rare book will appear that either does not include a list of sources at all, or includes a list but without any connection to the actual information, which makes tracing the information to its original source difficult, if not impossible.) Unfortunately, these books saturate the market, and they sell well; meanwhile, authors whose books are built from the ground up, one piece of archival material at a time, are often relegated to the shelves of university libraries, their hard work seen as nothing more than a tired, heavily footnoted chore.

And yes, there are others who achieve success without devaluing primary sources or embracing the belief that historical nonfiction should be written in the fashion of novels--Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin are two of the most prominent--but like McCullough, they are not young. Goodwin is in her eighth decade, and has admitted that at best she has one more large work of history to write. Caro, on the other hand, turned 80 this year and has devoted much of the last thirty years to a five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson--a monumental achievement that will surely be his legacy when completed, but one that has distracted him from all other potential subjects. Beside them stand ideologues, propagandists, and fabricators, all of whom shall go nameless here, but who work--intentionally or unintentionally, it doesn't matter--to reduce archives of real, invaluable stories to worthless potboilers.

The questions then remains is, what must we demand of our historians and writers of history in order for McCullough's legacy to avoid the shadows? But this is not the question we must ask--there will always be those who take the highway towards fame and prosperity rather than the rough path towards truth and duty. The true question is what we must do as readers to assure that those writers who choose to dedicate years, if not decades, of their lives to a singular subject are rewarded with praise, attention and, most of all, patience. We must become as familiar with the ends of a book as we are with its beginnings, and we must set aside those that refuse to tell us--in specific detail--where every single quote, fact, and assertion originated. Publishers must demand this, as well, as the growth of the internet has allowed millions of people to become their own personal fact-checkers, and a company that does not guarantee authenticity has instead opened the door for public scrutiny and backlash.

If we are blessed to have David McCullough around for many more years--as I hope we are--then we must treasure him, not just because of his skills as a writer, but because he is one of the few who is actively keeping the process alive. In a world where gossip, scandal, and lies are often what grab our attention, McCullough's book guarantee that there is at least one figure standing ready to preserve truth.

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Below is a list of the books--including many by David McCullough--that I read in 2015.
  1. At Home:  A Short History of Private Life (Bill Bryson)
  2. Ghost World (Daniel Clowes)
  3. Ancient Trees:  Portraits of Time (Beth Moon)
  4. After Dark (Haruki Murakami)
  5. Catherine the Great:  Portrait of a Woman (Robert K. Massie; e-book)
  6. The Fierce Urgency of Now:  Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (Julian E. Zelizer)
  7. Micro Fiction:  An Anthology of Really Short Stories (Jerome Stern, editor)
  8. Brian's Winter (Gary Paulsen)
  9. The Man Who Touched His Own Heart:  True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery (Rob Dunn)
  10. Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End (Atul Gawande)
  11. Child of God (Cormac McCarthy)
  12. Mind Over Matter:  The Epic Crossing of the Antarctic Continent (Ranulph Fiennes)
  13. Poisoned Apples:  Poems For You, My Pretty (Christine Heppermann)
  14. Newton and the Counterfeiter:  The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist (Thomas Levenson)
  15. Silver Screen Fiend:  Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film (Patton Oswalt)
  16. Prophet's Prey:  My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (Sam Brower)
  17. Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption (Bryan Stevenson)
  18. The Duck Gods Must Be Crazy:  More Stories of Waterfowling Obsession (Doug Larsen)
  19. The Natty Professor:  A Master Class on Mentoring, Motivating, and Making it Work (Tim Gunn)
  20. I Hate My Selfie:  A Collection of Essays (Shayne Dawson)
  21. Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Erik Larson)
  22. *The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronson; ebook)
  23. Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You:  A Lively Tour Through the Dark Side of the Natural World (Dan Riskin)
  24. *The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
  25. The Wright Brothers (David McCullough)
  26. Inventions That Didn't Change the World (Julie Halls)
  27. No Better Friend:  One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII (Robert Weintraub)
  28. When to Rob a Bank: ...And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants (Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner)
  29. *Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
  30. Headstrong:  52 Women Who Changed Science and the World (Rachel Swaby)
  31. Inside Hitler's Bunker:  The Last Days of the Third Reich (Joachim Fest)
  32. A Spy Among Friends:  Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Ben Macintyre; ebook)
  33. Washington's Circle:  The Creation of the President (David S. Heidler; ebook)
  34. *At Home:  A Short History of Private Life (Bill Bryson; ebook)
  35. The Festival of Insignificance (Milan Kundera)
  36. The Boxes (William Sleator; ebook)
  37. The Shadows (Jacqueline West; ebook)
  38. Rooftoppers (Katherine Rundell)
  39. Mornings on Horseback:  The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt (David McCullough)
  40. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews)
  41. Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee)
  42. *A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson)
  43. Vinnie Ream:  An American Sculptor (Edward S. Cooper)
  44. The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)
  45. *There Are No Shortcuts (Rafe Esquith)
  46. Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library (Chris Grabenstein; ebook)
  47. The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster; ebook)
  48. Assassination Vacation (Sarah Vowell)
  49. What Pet Should I Get? (Dr. Seuss)
  50. The Island of Dr. Libris (Chris Grabenstein; ebook)
  51. The Girls of Murder City:  Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago (Douglas Perry)
  52. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers:  The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth (Paul Hoffman)
  53. *The Thing Beneath the Bed (Patrick Rothfuss; Nate Taylor, illustrator)
  54. Galileo's Middle Finger:  Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science (Alice Dreger)
  55. Bird Box (Josh Malerman)
  56. The Conquerors (David McKee)
  57. The Incredible Book Eating Boy (Oliver Jeffers)
  58. Lost and Found (Oliver Jeffers)
  59. My Planet:  Finding Humor in the Oddest Places (Mary Roach)
  60. My Father's Arms Are a Boat (Stein Erik Lunde; Oyvind Toyseter, illustrator; Kari Dickson, translator)
  61. The Hueys in the New Sweater (Oliver Jeffers)
  62. Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (Christine Baldacchino; Isabelle Malenfant, illustrator)
  63. Tiny Beautiful Things:  Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayed)
  64. The Wright Brothers (David McCullough; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by McCullough)
  65. Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan: the True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate (Rick Bowers)
  66. A Gentle Madness:  Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (Nicholas Basbanes)
  67. The Port Chicago 50:  Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (Steve Sheinkin)
  68. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams; audiobook, unabridged, narrated by Stephen Fry)
  69. The Great Whale of Kansas (Richard W. Jennings)
  70. Gateway to Freedom:  The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (Eric Foner)
  71. Stories 1, 2, 3, 4 (Eugene Ionesco; illustrated by Etienne Delessert)
  72. And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)
  73. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Haruki Murakami)
  74. A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)
  75. The Boy on the Porch (Sharon Creech)
  76. How to Steal a Car (Pete Hautman)
  77. The War That Forged a Nation:  Why the Civil War Still Matters (James McPherson)
  78. Wind/Pinball:  Two Novels (Haruki Murakami)
  79. Humans of New York: Stories (Brandon Stanton)
  80. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (M.T. Anderson)
  81. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (Sarah Vowell)
  82. The Rest of Us Just Live Here (Patrick Ness)
  83. Steam & Cinders: The Advent of Railroads in Wisconsin (Axel Lorenzsonn)
  84. Crenshaw (Katherine Applegate)
  85. La Pointe:  Village Outpost on Madeline Island (Hamilton Nelson Ross)
  86. Brave Companions:  Portraits in History (David McCullough)
  87. Righteous Pilgrim:  The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952 (T.H. Watkins)
  88. Carry On (Rainbow Rowell)
  89. The Thing About Jellyfish (Ali Benjamin)
  90. History of Brule's Discoveries and Explorations (Consul Willshire Butterfield)
  91. Mockingbird (Kathryn Erskine)
  92. Marked (P.C. Cast and Kristen Cast)
  93. History of the Ojibways, and their Connection with Fur Traders:  Based Upon Official and Other Records (Rev. Edward D. Neill)
  94. Truman (David McCullough; audiobook, abridged, narrated by David McCullough)
  95. The Chippewas of Lake Superior (Edmund Jefferson Danzinger, Jr.)
  96. The Shark Attacks of 1916 (Lauren Tarshis)
  97. Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (Isaac Bashevis Singer; translated by multiple authors)