Monday, June 04, 2007

Pigskin and Paper

When Theodore Roosevelt left office, he planned a lengthy African safari to get out of the way of his successor's fledgling administration. His sister Corinne records in her book My Brother Theodore Roosevelt that as TR prepared to leave the White House, she offered to buy him "a real present". His request was a specially-bound collection of books because, as he said,

"Of course, I must take a good many books; I couldn't go anywhere, not even into the jungles of Africa without a good many books. But also, of course, they are not very likely to last in ordinary bindings, and so I want to have them all bound in pigskin ..." (p. 251)

Hence the legendary "pigskin library" now in the collections of Harvard University. Roosevelt wrote back from Africa that it had been "the utmost possible comfort and pleasure" to him. "Fond though I am of hunting and of wilderness life, I could not thoroughly enjoy either if I were not able, from time to time, to turn to my books." (p. 256)

So when Roosevelt headed for the wilds, what books did he want close at hand? Corinne gave the list -- starting with the Bible and the Apocrypha (why, being Dutch Reformed, TR specifically included the latter, I can't say). From there TR's tastes ranged to Homer's Odyssey, Spenser's Faerie Queene, Bret Harte and Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe, Macaulay and Shakespeare, Die Niebelungenlied, Sir Walter Scott, and The Federalist Papers. They included books on naval history, collections of poetry, Pilgrim's Progress and a biography of Frederick the Great.

The fifty or sixty titles are not a complete "Great Books" collection by any means -- they were just what TR wanted to take on his hunting trip.

My son John will be in Asia for three months, and like TR, he is a voracious reader. The long journey is intimidating enough, but a recently-returned friend advised that he found nearly zero reading material in English while he was there. That was my own observation from our visit in 2005; the only English-language bookstore I visited was heavy on economic treatises and teach-yourself-English guides.

Lacking a burro to carry John's luggage, we traded permanance for portability. I suggested some titles from our collection of paperbacks, but the final selection was my son's -- and we discovered the morning of departure that he had decided to fill out the rest of his weight limit with books.

So what's in John's "pigskin library"? A list as eclectic as TR's:

The Bible, both in English and Mandarin; a new Langerscheidt's English-Mandarin dictionary; Larry Burkett's Business by the Book; mysteries by Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey; and though they don't add any weight, he had downloaded e-text versions of Matthew Henry's Commentary, several books by J.C. Ryle, a number of G.A. Henty's historical novels, and for devotional reading, Spurgeon's Morning and Evening.

He also has my copy of Robert Axtell's book on cross-cultural etiquette called Do's and Taboos, with the Asian portions marked; a book by the Puritan Thomas Brooks which he and I planned to read together (he got the unmarked copy, though); Allan Drury's Senate novel Advise and Consent; an economics book by Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman; and John Murray's Principles of Conduct.

Maybe that will hold him.

John has a busy summer planned, and he may not have time to read more than his morning devotions and an occasional scan of the International Herald Tribune or something similar. Still, since he's had his last trip to the library until Labor Day, he had to make some provision. True bibliophiles will understand.


Corinne Roosevelt Robinson's My Brother Theodore Roosevelt (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1921) can be read online or downloaded in pdf from Google Books. So can a multitude of other titles; I have to remember to look there first for the out-of-print volumes.

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