Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Presidential Challenge: Thomas Jefferson

Reader Friends, you may have noticed that I'm losing the Presidential Challenge hosted by Jackie at Lovely Little Shelf.  I'm trying not to force it and make it an assignment instead of being fun, so stick with me even though these reviews are few and far between.  If I can do 6 this year, I'll feel good about it.  I'm on our third president now, Thomas Jefferson. 

The last book I read for the challenge, John Adams, included a lot of history on Thomas Jefferson as well.  Unfortunately, Jefferson doesn't come off as a very nice person in the John Adams story.  So, after hearing that Jackie had felt like the biography that she read of Jefferson was also a pretty negative portrait of the man, I decided to try something different.  I really wanted to read a book that would give me Jefferson's side of the story, since from what I'd read in John Adams, he seemed like a real jerk.  That's what led me to choose Jefferson's Demons by Michael Knox Beran.  I was also intrigued because the subtitle of the book (Portrait of a Restless Mind) and it's cover copy indicate that the book has a psychological focus, exploring Jefferson's bouts with depression and his family history of mental illness.

I have to say Reader Friends, there is a reason this book took me over two months to read.  After reading over 700 pages on John Adams, I felt like I was giving myself a little breat with 280-something pages on Jefferson.  Oh no.  It took me twice as long to read and here is why: it was so very very boring. 

Ugh.  The author tries really hard to make this academic and literary by including "big" words and fancy terms when others would work just as well.  The word "ennui" is used about 8 bazillion times throughout the book.  It's also a pet peeve of mine for an author to write as if he's using a thesaurus. 

In just  one example, Beran describes "sanguinary violence" when he very well could have said "bloody violence" or just "violence".  When you're describing the French Revolution, we can pretty much assume that it was bloody.  Forcing readers to a dictionary doesn't make an author seem smarter, it just aggravates the reader.  And look, I'm not advocating that readers never have vocabulary challenges.  But my problem is with authors who use those words repeatedly and unnecessarily.  If your big word is the best word for the passage, then use it and I'll gladly look its meaning up in a dictionary.  But don't write as though you're using a thesaurus to find all of your adjectives. 

No problems with the research itself, everything is documented appropriately, it's just written in a stuffy manner.

Entertainment Value:
None.  This book actually probably would have been best used as a back up for having forgotten my Ambien, because I couldn't make it through more than 5 or 10 pages without passing out.  Through the first 100 pages, Jefferson actually doesn't do very much at all.  He goes to Europe, a part I was particularly anxious to hear about from his point of view, but instead of seeing his political interactions in France, particularly with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, we get 100 pages of Jefferson taking a road trip to look at architecture and taste wines.  Actually, we get more like 95 pages about the architecture and wines of the day and 5 pages of Jefferson doing anything at all.  That's an exaggeration, but not by far.  I will grant the author that it is interesting to note how the architectural styles of the period, particularly the ruins being uncovered, influenced Jefferson's decisions in building his home, but that can be said in a sentence. 

What really really bothered me is that we get no sense of Jefferson's "demons" at all.  We see some vague references to a family history of mental illness, we see Jefferson being melancholy at times, but the descriptions of his depression and how they impacted him politically are really barely present at all.  Overall, I learned more about Thomas Jefferson as a person and as a president from reading a biography of John Adams and I learned it in a much more entertaining way.  I was also really disappointed that I still know nothing about Jefferson's motivations for some of the more slimy things he did.

In short, I do not recommend giving this one a try, unless maybe you're dealing with some terrible insomnia.  I know there has got to be a better Jefferson biography out there, but for now I'm moving on to James Madison.


  1. Do you like Jefferson any more aftet this book?

  2. Kenpen - not really. I dont' like him any less either though. I felt like I didn't get all that much information about him at all beyond some very basic facts.

  3. Bummer that this one was so boring. I love reading your presidential reviews by the way. I've always been intrigued by the lives of the presidents, so I think this is a cool challenge!