Sunday, February 13, 2005

Little Matty, the Red Fox of Kinderhook

Book 14 of '05: Martin Van Buren, Ted Widmer.

I have slogged my way through many an epic biography. Few men (or women) warrant the excess represented by a biography of several hundred pages. Historians seem drawn to such excess, which generally results in an surfeit of boredom and a shortage of reader interest. Yes, there are exceptions. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of LBJ and William Manchester’s multi-volume history of William Churchill all come to mind.

Two recent series have made a virtue of the small book. Widmer’s Martin Van Buren belongs to the American Presidents series by Times Books. The series is uniformly well-written, balanced, insightful and brief. Widmer's Martin Van Buren weighs in at less than 200 pages, including a page of milestones in Van Buren's life, a bibliography and the index. I have especially enjoyed and appreciated the biographies of such little-known presidents as Van Buren, Chester Alan Arthur and Warren G. Harding (written by John Dean).

Another superb “mini” series is the Penguin Lives biographies of famous men and women, ranging from Buddha to Elvis, from Joan of Arc to Crazy Horse.

I offer two quotes from Martin Van Buren:

“Still, there is no evidence that Van Buren ever committed any indiscretions during his long career at the center of Washington society—he managed to combined perfectly the seeming capacity for sin with the refusal to commit it . . .”

In remarking on a vindictive act by political allies against rival De Witt Clinton, Widmer tells us: “Van Buren exploded, ‘There is such a thing in politics as killing a man too dead!’”

* * *

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I traveled to Boston for two days last week. My schedule did not allow time for “booking,” but I did pay an all-to-brief visit to the Brattle Book Shop. Tucked away on a side street in downtown Boston, Brattle is a well-respected purveyor of used, rare and antiquarian books. Its general dishevelment and down-at-the-heels air keep me from placing it on the shortlist of my favorite shops. That aside, it is clearly worthy of a visit during any journey to Boston. It’s evident that treasures rest on its shelves, treasures that appear to be reasonably priced.

Brattle has three floors, the uppermost housing its rare book room. I was most entranced by its open-air shopping. While it is not unusual for a used book shop to place a cart or two outside the entrance, generally in the hope of luring shoppers inside, Brattle's outdoor arrangements emulate what I envision the outdoor book stalls of Europe to be. It features a combination of permanent and temporary shelves and carts situated on a vacant lot next to the store. During my visit, there were far more shoppers outside than in. Although it was an appealing setting, the unseasonably warm, sunshiny day in mid-February was the most likely explanation for the many book lovers choosing to shop alfresco.

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