A presidential reading quest

A father's goal to read a biography of every president helps enrich his family's knowledge.

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    Portrait of a president: Millard Fillmore, the 13th US president, was born in Locke, N.Y. He was appointed president in 1850 after the unexpected death of President Zachary Taylor.
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Call him crazy. Call him determined. Just don't try calling my husband away from his latest book. No, it's not a Stephen King thriller or even the final Harry Potter adventure. It's another presidential biography – Millard Fillmore – the latest in my spouse's quest to read a book about each and every US president.

Why would my mathematically minded husband – the one with the chemical engineering degree – suddenly take a fancy to history?

"It is important to study the past," he informed me as we cleared the dinner dishes one evening. "I always wanted to take more history courses, anyway."

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After dinner, he flops down in his usual pose, legs outstretched on the couch with his nose deep in presidential politics.

"Daddy's reading about the presidents again," my youngest daughter comments.

"How many books does he have to read?" her sister asks, like this is some type of class assignment.

While the girls take their baths, he reads a chapter or two. He helps tuck the kids into bed, then hurries downstairs, with a book in hand. For the next hour or so, my beloved is lost in history. I cozy up next to him, enjoying the quiet nighttime stillness as I peruse my magazines and catalogs. The television, feeling neglected, sits idly, gathering dust.

I love him for this, of course. This noble search for meaning, especially in a time of war and terror, is nothing if not admirable. But part of me is skeptical. Is he just trying to prove something here? Accomplish a personal goal of some sort? This is, after all, the man who set out to attend a baseball game in every major league ballpark some 17 years ago. Fresh out of college, he drove cross-country with a buddy, picking up tickets from scalpers and living on hot dogs and home runs for five-and-a-half weeks. He did it, too – 26 ballparks in all. Call it what you will – youthful exuberance or a sheer love of sport – he accomplished his goal then, and every bone in my body tells me that this time he will as well.

When he first got interested in this literary pursuit, my husband wanted to start at the beginning: George Washington. But his quick online search of our local library turned up hundreds of volumes on just the founding fathers alone. With so many choices, it became difficult to select just one good book on each president – a biography that spun an interesting tale, yet also accurately relayed historical facts. Seeking advice from the very best, my husband fired off an e-mail to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

"I think she will be able to suggest a few books," he commented confidently, not once thinking that Ms. Goodwin might have a few other items on her agenda. Linda, Goodwin's spokesperson, suggested checking out other readers' comments on Amazon.com.

"Guess Doris doesn't want to commit," my husband chuckled.

Library card in hand, he took the plunge on his own, selecting books with guidance from newspaper and online book reviews.

Try as I might, it is hard to keep up with all this presidential lore.

"Did you know that both John Adams and John Quincy Adams kept diaries?" he says.

My daughters roll their eyes, knowing that a presidential trivia session is about to begin.

"Mmm, that's interesting, honey."

I try to share in his sense of wonder, but my mind is a few hundred years away, focused instead on getting my girls to eat their dinner.

"John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe all died on July 4th!" he announces.

I am starting to feel guilty, actually. I don't recall any of these facts, even though, many moons ago, I actually placed out of college history with a decent score on the US history advanced placement exam. Where did all of that knowledge go?

This literary journey, although frustrating sometimes, does seem to be leading our family down a positive path. We all are reading more these days – especially our fourth-grader. But her book, "Yo, Millard Fillmore!" sounds just a tad more fun than her father's books.

This reading marathon, an exercise in both endurance and intellectual curiosity, is no doubt good for all of us. I may poke fun at that man on the couch, already reading about Franklin Pierce, but deep down, I admire his fortitude. Presidential history is alive in our house, and, with the help of my husband, we continue to travel – from Abe Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt, and then on from FDR to JFK. Our family is richer for this journey – this crazy quest – to learn something from our presidential past.

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