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Friday, May 31, 2013

Coolidge (audiobook) by Amity Shlaes

Book Marred By The Author's Insistence On Including Everything and Analyzing Nothing

Published by Harper Audio in February of 2013
Read by Terence Aselford
Duration: 21 hours, 8 minutes

Amity Shlaes' previous book was a history of the Great Depression called The Forgotten Man. In his own way Calvin Coolidge is also a forgotten man. He sits midway between two presidential giants (Wilson and FDR) who vigorously expanded the power of the federal government and the executive branch. His term was not marked by wars, but rather by a general rise in America's prosperity. Coolidge is not remembered as a great president but as an oddity - Silent Cal who took naps every afternoon.

Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), president from 1923-2929
This is unfortunate. While hardly a perfect president, Coolidge has some important lessons to offer. I feel that I have to offer some bonafides at this point. I am not a fan of this book but I do find Coolidge interesting, On my blog you will find 2 Calvin Coolidge quotes. I am a big fan of his "economizing" and thought his interesting experiment in cutting taxes to increase revenue to be an wonderful confirmation of the Laffer Curve. He had things he was short-sighted on but this book largely ignored them or explained them poorly, such as the Billy Mitchell air power vs. sea power controversy and the damage his support of tariffs caused in the long term.

In fact, that is the crux of the problem that I have with this book. It tells the story of his life thoroughly but offers no analysis..In his book Winged Defense, Billy Mitchell predicted that American warships were vulnerable to air attack and that planes from the Empire of Japan would attack the American navy at Pearl Harbor in 1925, 16 years before Pearl Harbor!  Does Shlaes mention this? No. Does she discuss how tariffs  hurt trade and damaging trade hurts long-term economic growth? No.

What Shlaes does in this self-described  "mammoth project" is line up every possible fact she could find and lay them all out in chronological order with almost no discussion or analysis at all. It makes for a fact-filled but not very informative book.  Billy Mitchell, the "economizing" and Coolidge's attempts to "outlaw" war by way of multi-lateral peace treaties deserve more than the mention as they go by on the timeline. They deserve discussion

Shlaes thrills to include little details from Coolidge's life and this book was an almost un-ending stream of factoids. We hear about Coolidge's college life, including an almost week-by-week look at his first semester, including his living quarters, how much rent he paid and lots of quotes from letters about his indecision about joining a fraternity. This book quotes Coolidge's letters frequently, which can be a nice touch. Oftentimes these quotes are used to illustrate a point that was already made and add nothing new. Or, they are rather pointless altogether like his letter to a tenant farmer on his land with unsolicited and unremarkable advice about farming (save some seed back in case of drought).

There are multiple ongoing touchstones in this book that serve as themes - emblems of ongoing important ideas in Coolidge's life. For example, the book continues to look at Amherst College as it tells the story of Calvin Coolidge. We hear about the ongoing struggles and successes of professors and fellow alumni and their reactions to changing times as a way of talking about how the philosophy he learned at Amherst served him throughout his life. She does the same with the limekiln plot back home in Vermont. This was a piece of hardscrabble farmland that symbolized his New England roots. Unfortunately, these touches were done rather clumsily and so often that I grew weary of them.

The official White House
portrait of Grace Coolidge
(1879-1957)
The discussion of Coolidge's family life was quite well done and stands out throughout the book. Shlaes does a good job of incorporating his family life in with the rest of the story. The reader (or, in my case, the listener) gets a strong feel for his father, his step-mother and his wife, Grace.

There are also long discussions of Charles Lindbergh and Gutzon Borglum (the designer and carver of Mount Rushmore) that were intended to add a little flavor of the times to the biography but mostly succeeded in dragging out this already overly long book even longer.

This audiobook tips the scales at 21 hours and 8 minutes. I think it would be safe to say that editing out a full one-fifth of this book would do nothing but make it better. It is full of extraneous details such as the cancellation of a state dinner by the leader of Cuba costing the White House $32 fill the book (he cancelled because of a controversy that is mentioned once and never mentioned again - apparently it was brought into the biography discuss the $32 charge to the kitchen in a time of economizing). Or, how about the story of Coolidge paying the property taxes on the limekiln plot and how he included a self-addressed stamped envelope for the receipt.  It is not noteworthy that Calvin Coolidge of all men paid his property taxes.Of course he paid them that is exactly the kind of man he was.

Part of the problem I had was that this was an audiobook. It is difficult to skim an audiobook. It is divided into 10-12 minute sections that are not separated by topic. So, I was forced to listen to stuff that I would have just skimmed right over in a print book. My frustrations with the audiobook do not include the reader Terence Aselford. His voice was just about  a perfect voice for a book about Calvin Coolidge. I especially liked that he created a voice for Coolidge that he used when he read from his letter, columns and speeches.

So, for a book that is about a man who was famous for being succinct and was nicknamed Silent Cal, this book was way too wordy. Throw in an almost complete lack of analysis of Coolidge's decisions and policies and you end up with a rating of 2 stars out of 5. for this audiobook.

This audiobook was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Reviewed on May 31, 2013.

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