How Lincoln Learned to Read

Daniel Wolff examines the lives of 12 Americans and the educations that made them.

How Lincoln Learned to Read By Daniel Wolff Bloomsbury 352pp., $26

Wouldn’t it be great if we could realize – early in life – what we needed to know in order to be successful? Or, more important, to make a positive difference in human affairs?

Since that’s impossible, maybe the more relevant question is: How do we make the best use of our upbringing and education?

Extraordinary Americans, history shows, have been “educated” in many different ways. And here, we’re not talking just (or even mainly) about book-learning. For much of our history, formal education as we think of it today has been available to relatively few.

In How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans And The Education That Made Them, Daniel Wolff looks at a dozen people ranging chronologically from Benjamin Franklin to Elvis Presley, examining each one’s early life. His working premise is the one posed in “The Education of Henry Adams” a century ago: “What part of education has ... turned out to be useful and what not.”

This is a terrific book. It’s compact (25 pages or so per individual) but rich and thought-provoking.

It draws heavily on each character’s own writing, mainly letters and diaries. It gave me new insights into great Americans I thought I knew pretty well, and it taught me much about those I’d barely heard of before.

Broad in scope, peppered with detail, insightful, it could be the basis for a classroom or book club review of American history from our founding as a nation through the 20th century.

Between Ben Franklin and Elvis, Wolff also examines Abigail Adams, Andrew Jackson, Sojourner Truth, Sarah Winnemucca, Henry Ford, W.E.B. DuBois, Helen Keller, Rachel Carson, and John F. Kennedy.

“Whatever the particular circumstances, an American education is going to bear the marks of rebellion,” Wolff writes, provocatively. With these 12 leading the way (and at a time when the early-life lessons of a new barrier-breaking US president have been examined in detail) that’s very worth considering. And it left me wondering what Wolff could have done with Oprah or Bill Gates or Yo-Yo Ma.

How about a sequel?

Brad Knickerbocker is a staff writer.

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