Three Books about Abraham Lincoln and His Books

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln grew up reading everything he could get his hands on in the largely illiterate western frontier of 19th century America. So it’s no small irony that estimates of books written about Abraham Lincoln run over 15,000 volumes. Some day I’ll count up the number of books about Lincoln I’ve read (I’m guessing over 200) but for now I’ll give you three quick reviews of books related to Lincoln’s own love of books. All of these and more can be found on my Goodreads page under “read” books.

Abraham Lincoln and His Books: With Selections from the Writings of Lincoln and a Bibliography of Books in Print Relating to Abraham Lincoln – William E. Barton (1920)

Interesting small book from 1920 on books Lincoln read, as well as books about Lincoln, with an early bibliography. Also includes several of his speeches and other writings.

A Shelf of Lincoln Books: A Critical, Selective Bibliography of Lincolniana – Paul M. Angle (1946)

Published in 1946, this volume is necessarily outdated, but should definitely not be overlooked. Paul M. Angle was one of the preeminent Lincoln scholars of his day. He has carefully selected about 80 of the thousands of Lincoln books extant at that time, with an eye for those that offer the greatest contribution to Lincoln scholarship and have stood the test of time. Thus, Angle eliminates those books that “were little better than worthless when they were published,” and focuses on those with lasting value.

Despite selecting the best books, Angle is direct in his critiques for any inadequacies he sees in each volume. He notes that many of his comments may reflect a “magisterial tone,” but it is exactly that tone and his authoritative evaluation of each book’s strengths and weaknesses that make this “Shelf” so valuable in its own right.

There is a need for an updated bibliography of Lincoln books, but such an update should start with this volume by Angle.

100 Essential Lincoln Books – Michael Burkhimer (2003)

Very useful book published in 2003. The essential books are listed chronologically, starting with Carpenter’s “The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months in the White House” (1866) and ending with Miller’s “Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography” (2002). Burkhimer writes in 2-3 pages a combination of summary, highlights, and essay for each of the 100 books he deems “essential.”

His selection is obviously somewhat arbitrary, and the early books sometimes are chosen not because of their staying power but because they were the big (and often, only) books of the day. More culling was necessary for recent decades because the number of books being published about Lincoln has increased rather than drifted off. Given the number of Lincoln books published in the decade since this publication (including, for example, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s stellar “Team of Rivals”), there is a definite need for updating. This book, however, is a wonderful resource for those interested in filling in their Lincoln reading list, as well as for providing insights into the value of each of the books cited.

David J. Kent has been a scientist for over 30 years, is a lifelong Lincolnophile, and is currently working on a book about Abraham Lincoln’s interest in science and technology. He is also the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and an ebook Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time.

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2 thoughts on “Three Books about Abraham Lincoln and His Books

  1. Good article. It’s interesting to consider the relative merit of works of “non-fiction.” It takes a great deal of reading on a historical subject before one can begin to make fair judgments regarding the accuracy of a particular interpretation. I recall my own surprise in a college class that focused on reading letters by various “Founding Fathers.” They weren’t at all what I had expected from the mythological presentations. Likewise, I note that the historical accuracy of my copies of Carl Sandburg’s, “Abraham Lincoln, The War Years,” (which I must admit to having inherited and never actually read) have been called into question. Gives me a great deal of appreciation for all the information you’ve resolved to collect from so many sources and for so many years before writing your own works.

  2. Thanks. I agree that non-fiction is harder to assess. You have to have enough knowledge of the subject to know when a book has gotten it wrong. Even with all the Lincoln books I’ve read, there are still many things I don’t know.

    For my own Lincoln book, I keep thinking that I’ve collected enough information and then something new pops up that I have to read. At the recent Lincoln conference I went to more than one famous author lamented the new information that came to light only after their book was finished. It doesn’t change the book’s conclusions (otherwise their research would have been pitiful), but it can offer an interesting detail or anecdote that could enhance the story.

    Luckily, I love reading.

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