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David McCullough talks about "The Greater Journey" and some of his own favorite books

One of the ways that biographer David McCullough learns about his subjects is to raid their libraries.

By / June 24, 2011

David McCullough says that he does some of his best thinking during early morning walks and that strolls are often part of his historical research.

Photo courtesy of William B. McCullough

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To understand the people that he writes about in his award-winning histories and biographies, David McCullough often reads what they once read.

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While researching his acclaimed book about John Adams, for example, McCullough discovered that Adams had carried around a copy of “Don Quixote” in his saddlebag.

“I was past 60 years old, and I had never read it,” McCullough recalled in a recent phone interview from his new home in Boston.

That’s how the Miguel de Cervantes classic landed on McCullough’s never-ending reading list, which seems to grow by the hour.

McCullough has been on the road lately promoting “The Greater Journey,” his new bestseller about Americans who traveled to Paris between 1830 and 1900 and were indelibly changed by their experiences. But these days, when McCullough isn’t writing or traveling, he’s happily stocking the library of his new apartment with more volumes.

After living in Martha’s Vineyard for 35 years, McCullough and his wife acquired their Boston apartment to be closer to children and grandchildren. They kept their home on the Vineyard, which means a net gain of shelf space – a plus for any bibliophile.

Biographers trying to probe McCullough’s mind by scanning the famous author’s bookcase might be puzzled.

“It would be a wacky-seeming list,” McCullough said of his reading preferences. Historians Barbara Tuchman, Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote rank among his favorites, but McCullough is also a big fan of William Trevor, the Irish author and playwright, as well as mystery writer Ruth Rendell.

McCullough’s avuncular baritone, famous around the country because of his work as a lecturer and TV presenter, gets a giddy lilt in it when the conversation turns to Anthony Trollope.

“I love Anthony Trollope,” he said. “I’m a Trollope nut. I also like [Canadian novelist] Robertson Davies. I love Charles Dickens’ ‘American Notes.’”

McCullough’s love affair with the printed word goes at least as far back as his youthful encounter with “Ben and Me,” Robert Lawson’s 1939 children’s story in which a lively mouse takes the credit for giving Benjamin Franklin his best ideas.

“He was my first revisionist historian,” McCullough said of Lawson and “Ben and Me.” “I still have that book. It’s marvelous, and it’s very well researched. I’ve shared it with my children and my grandchildren.”

McCullough’s summer reading list includes an Italian travelogue by Mary McCarthy, “The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed,” as well as “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal’s 2010 memoir of his art-collecting Jewish family and its travails in the Holocaust.

“The guy can really write,” McCullough said of de Waal. “Of course, the book always has this shadow of Hitler in the story.”

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