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David McCullough's Picks
To a degree rarely found in the correspondence of eighteenth century Americans, Abigail and John Adams poured out in the privacy of their letters to each other, all their innermost thoughts to one another year after year through good times and bad. Both were exceptional writers. Each was incapable of writing a dull letter, and the sum total of this treasure of a book is an incomparable window on both American history and an American love story.
The first of these delightful letters was written in 1863 from a boarding school near London, when Stevenson was 13, the last in 1894, at age 44, from Samoa, shortly before he died. Given his incomparable gifts as a writer, his circle of friends, and his travels there is no slacking in pleasure or interest all the way through.
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There are few better ways that I know to saturate oneself in a whole era than in the letters of Henry Adams, written from 1858 to 1918, or more than sixty years. The grandson and great grandson of presidents and a brilliant historian (some argue he was our greatest historian), Adams was a close witness to much that went on in Washington, London, and Paris and an insightful, often unsparing judge of many of the main characters. Always, I find, there are new discoveries to be made in reading and rereading these volumes.
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This marvelous book is filled with joy and humor and surprises aplenty. It was my wife Rosalee who first began reading it and soon insisted I listen while she read from it aloud. We've since read and loved much of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, but keep her letters close at hand to dip into time and again.
When our daughter Dorie Lawson suggested to me some years ago that I do a collection of letters of eminent Americans to their children, I liked the idea at once. But when I told her I was too preoccupied with my own work at hand to take on more, she decided she would do it herself, and what resulted is an anthology like no other. The authors of the letters she chose include a number of the giants of American literature as well as soldiers, explorers, artists, inventors, a legendary president of Harvard, and Groucho Marx. All, whether stern comeuppances or love letters, are from the heart. If I had to pick a favorite, I guess it would be one on aging by Oscar Hammerstein.