The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams

This was a completely worthwhile book.

It's considered one of the greatest autobiographies, and I can well see why. Above and beyond the fascinating events Adams witnessed, he delivers a humourously self-deprecating and humble portrait of himself with all the wisdom a 70-year-old man writing about his younger self could hope to employ. His focus is constantly on the forces that shaped his life and his mind - and he doesn't think much of them.

It's obscurely reassuring to read about a man who is so self-evidently of genius calibre who took so much time to find his path, and spent so much time blundering about in life without a clear direction.

It's hard to supply a short list of great things about this book. Adams delivers an unlimited supply of insightful one-liners; portraits from life of four Presidents (John Quincy Adams, Lincoln, Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt), Lord Palmerston, and Garibaldi; an account of the immense changes in the world from his birth in 1838 to 1905 - i.e. the Civil War, the war of 1870, Darwin, the spread of steam power and the automobile, the discovery of radiation, etc.; and a vast array of musings from a wide-ranging and deeply thoughtful mind.

Adams as a young man studied at Harvard, then in Germany; served as his father's personal secretary while Charles Adams was the US Ambassador to Great Britain during the war; worked as a journalist in Washington DC; and finally settled down rather unwillingly as a historian at Harvard College in his mid-thirties.

He evinces a surprising amount of bitterness about politics. His portrait of President Grant is scathing; Grant's failings are blamed for a derailment of his life and destruction of any remaining optimism. Over and over again he repeats the phrase 'A Friend in power is a friend lost', which he seems to regard as one of the few valid lessons gained from his early 'education'. He denigrates the holding of political power and talks about Congress in a way that even the most disillusioned stakeholder wouldn't today (I wonder if that's because we stopped expecting it to work?). To borrow a phrase from later on in the work, "the outlook is without hope".

In the second half of the autobiography, covering the years from 1892 onward, Adams describes a number of thought-processes that engaged his attention after his departure from Harvard. Some of them I admit I tuned out - or maybe they just went over my head. A few were surprisingly evocative. His analysis of Russia, for example, was right on the mark, and almost prescient in its predictions.

In an analysis of social forces, he applies the principles of mathematics to social progress in calculating the 'force' of attraction of technology. Using various differing measures, he estimates a rate of increase (which he extends back to the 13th century) of a doubling every ten years. Since I'm pretty sure Moore wasn't alive in 1905, that means Adams' exponential law predates his by quite a bit.

The recording I listened to was excellent. Jonathan Reese made a great reader. He sounded just right. And he gave exactly the right emphasis to every sentence. It was a pleasure listening to him

I'll sign off with this quote. Listening to it was more than a bit surreal.

"At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. To him the nineteenth century would stand on the same plane with the fourth--equally childlike--and he would only wonder how both of them, knowing so little, and so weak in force, should have done so much."

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