Late last night, I started reading Gerald R. Ford by Douglas Brinkley. Before that, I had read To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian by Stephen E. Ambrose, and was particularly taken with this passage on page 50, in which Ambrose's editor asked him to write a book on the building of the transcontinental railroad, but not focusing on the shady motives of the bosses involved, but rather how it was built, who built it.
He writes: "I needed six months to read the major items in the literature so I could see if there was a reason for another book on the subject. In the process, I discovered what a fascinating subject the building of the line was and is. I discovered that there was an alternative proposal to having the railroad built by private corporations. The government built wagon roads, dug and maintained harbors and canals, constructed bridges. Why not have the government build and own the railroad?"
Six months. I didn't have that luxury when I wrote my essays for What If They Lived? I didn't need it, because the concept was already laid out. The names were ready for me to choose. There was a deadline and it was time to get to work. I was entirely new at this form of writing, and there was no safety net. I just had to get to work and do it.
Then, I was freaking out inside about the entire project, about the sheer enormity of it, but now I'm grateful for it because I have the confidence to press on with my ideas, to make them real. Now I have the luxury to spend time reading "the major items in the literature," though I'm starting relatively small. Douglas Brinkley's book is one in the "American Presidents Series," with Arthur W. Schlesinger, Jr. as the General Editor, and published by Times Books, a branch of Henry Holt and Company.
From what I can tell, having checked out a good number in this series, the text doesn't go above 200 pages. As Schlesinger puts it in the Editor's Note that appears in all the books, "It is the aim of the American Presidents series to present the grand panorama of our chief executives in volumes compact enough for the busy reader, lucid enough for the student, authoritative enough for the scholar."
These are perfect diving boards for me. Maybe I'll find what I'm looking for here in smaller details. It gives me the background of these men and then I can go for the bigger books later on, many of which I have right now. Plus the "Selected Bibliography" offers up a heap of books that I might read in the months to come.
When I was reading Ambrose's book, I read about World War II, and I read about Vietnam, subjects that don't interest me as much as the presidency. But it also depends on the historian because Ambrose writes about it all so vividly, that I'm glad to learn more about these wars, and since they involved many presidents, I can place it in that context, which Ambrose gives as well.
Most important to me is that I'm excited about this. I see the other library books in my stacks related to this research, and I'm not intimidated. This is where I belong.