Friday, November 1, 2013

Book #57 - The Education of Henry Adams (Henry Adams)

Pretty much four times a day for the past few months Robby Virus, the blogger, has been getting e-mails asking if he's dead already because he hasn't appeared to have read a book and blogged about it for almost five months.  "No", he usually has replied, "I'm not dead yet, I'm just stuck in the middle of "The Education of Henry Adams".  You try reading this damn book and see what it's like."  Virus enjoyed the book, for a number of reasons which he will no doubt elaborate upon soon enough, but it was slow going.  Real slow going.  Plus he went to Europe for a summer vacation, much like Henry Adams tended to do, and he found that drinking one's self silly in hipster cocktails bars in London and Paris tends to cut down on one's reading time, and in fact, tends to eliminate it altogether, at least for the duration of one's European sojourn.

"The Education of Henry Adams" is an autobiographical book.  But Virus hesitates to call it an autobiography because it's so damn quirky.  First of all, Adams uses the third person throughout the book.  He never refers to himself as "I".  He always calls himself "Adams", as in "Then Adams went to Paris in the summer and drank himself silly in hipster cocktail bars".  Pretty odd.  And then there's the fact that while the book follows Adams's life from childhood to old age, he skips over a lot of important stuff, like the fact that he was married and his wife committed suicide.  Ho hum, move along, nothing to see here.  There's even one twenty year period that he just skips over saying nothing much happened then.  And then towards the end of the book, Adams starts ranting about his "theory of history".  Don't even ask Robby Virus what the basis of this theory is because he has no clue...the wording was dense, and not remotely interesting to him, and thus poor Virus's mind wandered and didn't focus, and plus he really just didn't freaking care.  So that part was lost on him.  When the reading got tough, Virus started spacing out until it got interesting again, which fortunately it always did.

Henry Adams was a member of the Adams family of Boston, which was really the Bush family of his day.  His father Charles Adams was the US ambassador to England during the Civil War, his grandfather was John Quincy Adams (the sixth president of the US), and his great grandfather was John Adams, the second president.  Not to mention Samuel Adams, who was a brewer and patriot.  Yes, they were one of America's most powerful families, and even though Henry never went into politics (he was his father's secretary, then a journalist, then a history professor) he had lots of friends in powerful positions in the government.  And this dude Adams was totally connected.  He was friends with senators and congressman and cabinet officials, he went to the White House to hang with presidents, and he gets to meet historical figures like Giuseppe Garibaldi.  He knew lots of rich, smart, and/or important people and he wasn't afraid to name drop.  But those are the circles you run in when you're practically American royalty.  And although he wasn't a politician, he was a historian and a journalist and an intellectual, so his commentary on the politics and progress of the mid-1800s to early 1900s is fascinating.  Well, sometimes it's fascinating.  Lots of times he talks about people and events that are obscure to the present day reader like poor Robby Virus, and so a lot got lost on said blogger.  If he had really taken his time, and had researched the events and people mentioned in the book as he read along, Virus would no doubt have gotten way more out of the reading experience.  But no, he didn't, the lazy bum,  Geez.

So yes, the book is slow going as Adams talks about people that were famous 150 years ago but whom remain unknown to people like Virus, just as Miley Cyrus and Ted Cruz will be unknown to folks living in the year 2163.  But while long passages in this book get really dry and dense, suddenly Adams will make a comment that's so freaking hilariously sarcastic (and often self-deprecating) that all is forgiven.  Adams was really smart, and a little odd, but also funny as hell at times.  Just as Virus would start to totally zone out and fall asleep from all the obscure historical references and dense prose, Adams would slap him in the face with some rhetorical flourish, and totally crack Virus up.  Yo, Henry, you da man!

What really made this book interesting to Virus was that Adams really conveyed the notion that he felt he was a man that wasn't of his time.  He was born in 1838 and remembers his grandfather, the sixth president (and tells a wonderful anecdote about when he had a temper tantrum as a young schoolboy, and was led wordlessly to school by his grandfather), whose own father was one of the nation's founders.  This world that Adams was born into was a very different world from the later 1800s and early 1900s.  Adams was a smart man, and could appreciate all the scientific progress that he saw around him...electricity, the telephone, the automobile, the discovery of previously unknown forces like radioactivity, etc...and he conveys his sense of bewilderment at how much faster and bigger and louder the world of his later years was compared to the world of his childhood.  This made Virus reflect on his own lifetime, and he came to the conclusion that although much has changed since his childhood (Man on the moon!  The internet!  Sequencing the human genome!  Twerking!) these changes don't seem quite as profound as the ones that Adams saw in his life.  Adams went from a colonial world to the modern technological world, while Virus's life has spanned a technological world to a more technological world.  Yeah, everyone has cell phones now, but it's not like that technology was not imagined when Virus was a child (for example, see the communicators on the original Star Trek).  Poor Adams felt bewildered by it all...he bitches that his education, rooted in the classics, was more appropriate for the world that had passed than the mathematical, scientific world that had arisen in his lifetime.  Yeah, but what are you gonna do?

If you want a fast moving, engaging autobiography then read Ben Franklin, or Frederick Douglass, or Booker T. Washington.  But if you're willing to slog through some dense and wordy writing, and get down and dirty into some nitty gritty history of the politics and intellectual history of 19th century America, you'll find some engaging anecdotes and witty sarcasm and curious insights into the life and mind of a member of one of America's original aristocratic dynasties.  To Virus, Adams really brought to life the sense of both progress and increasing chaos of the developing nineteenth century and early twentieth century.  It's not a book to be taken lightly or read quickly, and to really appreciate the book it takes more work than Virus put into it (some Cliff Notes explaining the historical background and personalities would have helped immensely), but it's fascinating (at least intermittently) and worthwhile nonetheless, at least in the mind of the middle-aged, booze-addled blogger.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Robby Virus is right: that 3rd person thing is annoying, but Amy B is glad he's back :)