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.

Photo courtesy of William B. McCullough
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.

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

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.”

Recently, a friend gave McCullough a copy of “American Traveler: The Life and Adventures of John Ledyard, the Man Who Dreamed of Walking the World.” Written by James Zug, the book tells the story of Ledyard, the peripatetic 18th-century explorer who became the first US citizen to touch North America’s western coast.

“My friend who gave the book to me knows that I like to walk,” said McCullough, who began walking regularly each morning while researching his biography of another great American walker, Harry Truman.

“People always ask me, ‘How much time do you spend researching, and how much time do you spend writing?’ That’s a good question,” he said. “But what they don’t ask me is ‘How much time do you spend thinking?’ ”

McCullough does some of his best thinking on his early morning walks, and his strolls are often part of his historical research. While writing “The Greater Journey,” for example, he would leave his Paris hotel room near the Louvre shortly after sunrise for walks near the Louvre, the Palais Royal, and along the Seine, tracing footsteps followed by many of the historical characters in his story. “I would get up and get going before the traffic picked up,” McCullough recalled. “I love to meet people, to say hello, to talk. It’s quite an exclusive club,” he said of his fraternity of fellow strollers.

McCullough views both his walking and his reading as rich sensory experiences. “I just love books physically,” he said. “I love books. I just love books, and I’ve always loved books.”

“The Greater Journey” seems to express McCullough’s ideal of books as pieces of art. The cover, by celebrated jacket designer Wendell Minor, is textured to simulate an artist’s canvas – a clever complement to the classic French oil paintings on the front and spine. The book itself was designed by Amy Hill, and it
features deckled edges that are also a treat for the fingertips. “I think it’s a masterpiece,” McCullough said of Minor and Hill’s handiwork.

McCullough also credited researcher Mike Hill as a key player in making “The Greater Journey,” noting Hill’s discovery of a colorful journal kept by American diplomat Elihu Washburne during his years in Paris. Simon & Schuster plans to publish the journal, with Hill heading up the project. McCullough said he’s thrilled that the book will give Hill, who normally works in the background, a much-deserved spotlight.

Given McCullough’s embrace of the physical properties of books, his longtime fans won’t be surprised that he doesn’t use e-books.

McCullough doesn’t use computers for writing, either, preferring to bang out his books on a Royal Standard manual typewriter that he’s owned for decades.

“A man in Martha’s Vineyard provides me with typewriter ribbons. He gets them from Mexico,” said McCullough.

Although typewriter repairmen are few and far between these days, McCullough doesn’t seem worried. “I bought my typewriter used in 1965,” he said. “It’s never broken.”

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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