Saturday, April 3, 2010

Book Review: "How Lincoln Learned to Read"

I was a pleasantly surprised by Daniel Wolff’s How Lincoln Learned to Read. Although the subtitle, “Twelve Great Americans and the Educations that Made Them,” is an accurate description of what the book is about, this book is much more than just a mini biography of these figures. Through the stories of these 12 individuals, the book also provides an overview of the American education system in general.

Wolff makes some interesting and thoughtful decisions in terms of the individuals he selects and the way that he goes about describing their educations. Some of these choices seemed perplexing at first, but they made a great deal of sense as I continued to read. For instance, the subjects are referred to by their childhood names or nicknames, which helped me focus on the information provided in the book, rather than the history that surrounds the subjects.

Another, more significant, choice that Wolff makes is that he is careful to explore both the formal and informal educations of these individuals. One of my initial fears was that the book would focus just on formal schooling or on the individuals’ education through experiences. To his credit, Wolff does a good job looking at both types of education and discussing their contributions. What's more, he subtly addresses America's sometimes dysfunctional relationship with education. A clear example of this is in the chapter on Lincoln. Wolff shows Lincoln's love of learning and books, but he also describes Lincoln's decision to portray himself as "an unschooled rail-splitter" in order to distance himself from the perceptions of elitism that came with formal education. What is sad is that, in many cases, this distrust of education in American society is still true.

All in all, if you are interested in education or American history (or both), you would enjoy How Lincoln Learned to Read. Not only is it thoroughly researched, but Wolff’s writing is engaging and his treatment of the subject is very thoughtful and provides a fresh perspective on these well-known figures and on education.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as part of the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing.