Thursday, September 6, 2012

All about the Benjamins (Franklin books)

I think it's cool how some history-lovers focus their reading on a single favorite person. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, seems to have a lot of expert admirers. I have always meant to learn more about Benjamin Franklin, so this year I am reading a bunch of his biographies. I grew up near Philadelphia. Franklin got a lot of attention in my elementary school, and I read one thin kids book about him a back when I was in third grade, but that was bout it until this year. Since January I have read five biographies and as many childrens books (to my kids).

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a must, of course. You can download it free for your eBook reader on Project Gutenburg.

Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan was the first modern biography I read. It's a good general book and provides context for Franklin's life which is helpful to have before reading Ben's biography. The author has a bit of humor, which is very appropriate to a man like Ben.

Benjamin Franklin: The First Mr. American by Roger Burlingame has been my favorite general history of Franklin. I stumbled upon this 1955 paperback at the antique store. It's a shame that the book is out of print, as it includes a good range of the most amusing anecdotes. This book offers detail on Franklin's service on the Pennsylvanian frontier during the French and Indian War. Everybody knows Ben was a genius inventor and diplomat, but I was surprised to learn how active he was in the military defense of the colony. He directed a frontier community to construct a fort using his own design!

For the serious Franklinphile, Historian J. A. Leo Lemay wrote an exhaustive series of biographies, The Life of Benjamin Franklin Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3. The last book brings us only to 1757. Unfortunately the author died before he could write the next books completing Franklin's life. I am finishing the second book now, and I am most looking forward to reading about his scientific and military accomplishments in volume 3. The level of detail is just amazing. Each 500 to 700 page book takes the reader slowly along Franklin's life. If you are interested in colonial era politics, business, printing/publishing, or military history, then you will appreciate the great depth of Lamay's writing.

My grand goal is to read all of the current Franklin bios in print. If your book's-to-read queue is too long, listen to these tow podcasts:
Benjamin Franklin discussed on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time
Stanford University’s Ben Franklin and the World of the Enlightenment


I read to my kids at bedtime every night, so they got to hear a lot about Franklin too. I started with Benjamin of Old Philadelphia by Margaret Cousins. This was first published in 1952 and is still a solid older-kid-appropriate biography. When we finished it we moved on to some other books, and then I asked what they'd like next. My nine-year-old replied, "My favorite books are about people who had adventures, you know, like Ben Franklin." I hadn't thought about it like that, but she's right. Franklin totally did have adventures. We have since read more, but Cousins' book has proven to be the best for kids.

What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? by Jean Fritz was a book I bought from one of those Scholastic catalogs in elementary school. It's a very short book with lots of cool 1970s illustrations. I just gave it to my kids to read on their own. Interestingly this book—which is supposed to be for younger readers—is the only children's book we've read that describes the drowning death of Benjamin's infant brother. There is even a Edward Gorey-style illustration of a kid's feet sticking out of a tub of soap suds!

At our local used bookshop I found Benjamin Franklin: Inventor, Statesman, and Printer by R. Conrad Stein. It seems like this 1972 biography is out of print, which is just as well. Although it added a few more anecdotes, the read didn't contribute much to our understanding of old Ben. I was most amused to see that this book lied to children. In an effort to hide the illegitimacy of Ben's son, the author wrote, "Ben and Deborah were married in September 1730. A short time later a son, William was born." Truth is young William, son of a mystery woman, was already in Ben's custody before their common-law marriage.

A friend recently gave us Benjamin Franklin, American Genius by Brandon Marie Miller. This 2009 book is full of activities as well as the story of Ben's life. My older daughter loves science activities, so this has been a great gift.

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