Sunday, January 20, 2008

Book #4 - The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

It's not every country that gets to have a founding father who's a bad-ass.  Benjamin Franklin was like some kinda super hero from a remote galaxy, come to free the colonies from the Evil Empire of Britain, but who's lost his light saber and can only use a printing press and his wits.  Plain and simply, he rocked.  Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams...yeah those guys were cool and smart, but they weren't Ben Franklin, a guy who might perhaps have the best resume in all of American History.  I mean, this guy was a successful businessman, rising up from a poor background to acquire great wealth.  And then, unlike our pal Dorian Gray, he totally focused himself on his own improvement (perhaps a bit too much) and improvement of "the common good".  He started the first library in the colonies, as well as the first fire department, he raised money to build the school that became the University of Pennsylvania, he was elected to the colonial assembly, he was a successful writer, signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, was a very successful ambassador to France, and could totally charm The Ladies.  Oh yeah, and he was a famous scientist in his day who frickin' invented the Franklin stove, the lightening rod, bifocals, and the glass harmonica.  Did I leave anything out?  Hell yes, I did, because there's not space enough to list it all.  Like I said, this guy was a super hero.  If you made him up in a novel, the character would be unbelievable. He's the kind of guy you read about and think, "Man, my life is pretty frackin' lame.  I am SUCH a loser compared to Ben Franklin".  But then, who isn't?  No politician today can hold a candle to this guy.  Not even remotely.

About two or three years ago I read a biography of Franklin by Walter Isaacson.  This was my first intro to old Ben, and it got me hooked on this superfly American hero.  So I was definitely looking forward to reading Franklin's autobiography and hear the story from The Man himself.  The first hundred pages or so are great...Franklin states at the beginning he's writing these memoirs for his son, so he will know his father's history.  The story is fun and riveting, and Franklin's humor totally comes across.  He tells of growing up in Boston, and being apprenticed to his brother to become a printer.  His brother is not the nicest guy, and beats our poor super hero, eventually causing Franklin to run away from Boston, where he was born, and travel to Philadelphia, where he works for another printer and eventually owns his own print shop.  He's livin' the American dream!  The tone of the first hundred pages shows Franklin is having a good time writing and telling his story.  But after writing these first 100 pages or so, Franklin put down his pen and didn't pick up his writing for several years.  He took it up again when he was urged to finish writing his story for the public.  Well, it's good that he continued, but the tone is completely's more impersonal, less quirky, and frankly a bit stodgy and dull.  He mentions his adult son, but there's no background given about his son growing up, or anything else about Franklin's family life for that matter.  Where did you go, Ben?  It feels like he got more conscious of his place in history and toned down the parts involving the good stuff like prostitutes and such.  Too bad.

By the way, one thing I learned was that people drank a heck of a lot in those days.  Franklin tells of when as a young man he went to London with a friend and worked at a printer shop.  The employees all drank pints of ale all day, starting at breakfast and ending after dinner.  And this is not under the table, as they have the ale delivered to them at work in a keg.  They are amazed that Franklin, who won't drink with them, gets a lot of work done, and can carry a load of paper under each arm and go up the stairs without falling.  Woohoo!  Times have definitely changed.

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