Sometimes you read a book because you’re interested in the subject matter, while other times you’re a fan of the author.
I picked up a copy of Walter Isaacson’s best-selling “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” (Simon & Schuster, 2003) not because I’m a huge admirer of Ben Franklin, but because I enjoyed Isaacson’s more recent biography, “Steve Jobs” (Simon & Schuster, 2011).
And I am certainly glad that I did. Despite its length – the paperback version runs 493 pages – “Benjamin Franklin” is an incredibly enjoyable read that provides a wealth of information not just about Franklin, but about American values in the 1700s. Isaacson does a masterful job of researching his subject and presents a balanced picture of a very complex individual.
The chronological structure of the book is of great help to both reader and subject. Isaacson devotes a chapter to each of the main phases of Franklin’s life, for example, “Bon Vivant: Paris, 1778-1785” and “Peacemaker: Paris, 1778-1785.” Readers who are not that interested in Franklin’s Parisian flirtations can skip such sections and jump to the founding father’s varied accomplishments.
Franklin cannot be an easy subject for a biographer, given that he was so influential in so many roles: author, printer, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, activist and diplomat. But Isaacson manages to weave the story of Franklin’s achievements together, connecting threads of a life built on “a sincere belief in leading a virtuous life, serving the country he loved, and hoping to achieve salvation through good works.”
I laughed out loud several times while reading “Benjamin Franklin,” mostly when reading quotes from Franklin himself. Readers will certainly gain a greater appreciation for the man and his wily ways. Although Franklin liked to portray himself as a simple man from the backwoods of America, he could be rather devious and scheming during the lengthy negotiations with the French over the terms of the Treaty of Alliance, and later with the British over the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War.
Despite Franklin’s many accomplishments, Isaacson doesn’t flinch at chronicling his failings, which include his rather poor treatment of both his wife, whom he did not see for the last decade of her life, and his son, whom he never forgave for siding with the British during the war.
Isaacson reserves his best insights for the book’s conclusion, where he notes, “During the three centuries since his birth, the changing assessments of Franklin have tended to reveal less about him than about the values of the people judging him.” John Keats, for example, complained that Franklin was “full of mean and thrifty maxims,” and Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson found Franklin too materialistic. English novelist D.H. Lawrence wrote that Franklin “had no concern, really, with the immortal soul. He was too busy with social man. …I do not like him.”
As Isaacson concludes: “(Franklin’s focus tended to be on how ordinary issues affect everyday lives, and on how ordinary people could build a better society. But that did not make him an ordinary man.”
Book clubs that read nonfiction should especially enjoy “Benjamin Franklin,” but give fair warning and plenty of time because of its length.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.