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Covid-19 reading. Mark Twain reading and lounging, circa 1905.
Detail: Mark Twain reading and lounging, circa 1905. Wikimedia Commons.
March 23, 2020

Historical Reads for Self-Isolation | COVID-19

With the outbreak of the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, the world currently finds itself in a pandemic of proportions rarely seen before. Our daily lives have altered to the point where some day, this will be taught as a history lesson. Most of us find ourselves social distancing, if not in self-isolation or quarantine. Amidst the isolation, many are turning to books as a form of comfort, engagement, and growth not offered to us by TV. As these are historic times, perhaps some historic figures from our Collection can offer some guidance on what to read.

Mark Twain struggled to narrow down his favorite authors at the request of a correspondent. For those embarking on the daunting task of homeschooling, Twain recommended the same books for boys and girls (with the exception of substituting Tennyson for Crusoe for girls.) Third on Twain’s list is a book written by a friend of his which Twain himself published a few years earlier, and to this day has never gone out of print: Grant’s memoirs

Upon leaving the White House in 1909, Theodore Roosevelt embarked on an African safari. He could not leave without packing some reading material, and brought no less than 59 books, weighing in at nearly 60 pounds. Roosevelt had the volumes bound in pigskin to protect them from the inevitable “blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes” to be expected on a hunting expedition in the African wilderness – and which did, indeed, stain Roosevelt’s now-famous portable library. Though Twain didn’t think much of Roosevelt (he called him a bully and a ruffian, to be precise), the feeling was not mutual, and in addition to the predictable classics, the former president made sure to pack some Twain for his journey.

Twain was also Harry Truman’s “patron saint” in literature.” In 1911, when he was twenty-seven years old and running his family farm, Truman used his own money to purchase a twenty-five volume set of Mark Twain’s works for the princely sum of $25 – roughly $680 in 2020. Though Truman was the only 20th century president without a college education, he read (by his estimation) all of the books in his local library, and the Old and New Testaments three times before he was fifteen years old. He even read Cato’s agricultural treatises and implemented the Roman senator’s methods on his 20th century Missouri farm, with much success and even acclaim from neighboring farmers. Truman was particularly drawn to biographies of famous generals (Robert E. Lee and Hannibal were favorites) and world leaders (especially Andrew Jackson.) His preference was prescient, and when he unexpectedly found himself at the helm of the most powerful military in history amidst the biggest war known to man, his reading, he said, prepared him for his “terrible trial.” 

If you would like to read some of the books mentioned here by Twain, Roosevelt, and Truman, the following is a partial list (the entire list of books for Roosevelt’s pigskin library is available here). Luckily, most of these titles are available online:

 

Historic Reading List

The Bible (Roosevelt, Truman)

John Milton, Paradise Lost (Roosevelt)

Shakespeare (Twain, Roosevelt, Truman)

Samuel McChord Crothers, Gentle Reader (Roosevelt)

Grant’s Memoirs (Twain) 

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer (Roosevelt, Truman)

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