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Customer Review

251 of 293 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How can Washington be boring?, December 19, 2010
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This review is from: Washington: A Life (Hardcover)
Let me begin by saying that this work is unquestionably the most complete biography of Washington that I've ever read. Author Ron Chernow makes thorough use of many never-before-available sources of Washington's life to create this comprehensive text. While I hesitate to say it and thus risk offending serious Washington scholars, I feel I must: for the average reader, this book is too detailed, too dense, and yes, folks, it is actually boring.

Washington is one of the almost inarguable heroes of American history, despite being a flawed human being just like anyone else. Chernow takes the reader through exactly what is promised--the life of Washington, from birth to death. Many readers will already be familiar with the most famous of the events in Washington's life, so the niche that this book perhaps would fill is to provide detail that other biographies do not include. Unfortunately, I found these details to be mind-numbingly dull. By mid-book the reader has a pretty good idea that Washington had a mother who was a massive pain-in-the-you-know-what, that he was deeply conflicted about slavery, and that he really, really liked his clothes. But after awhile, the endless source documentation of each of these things did not add much to the knowledge base. At times it almost seemed as though the author were merely trying to get as much information on the page as possible with little regard for readability.

I slogged through this book over roughly 2 months, while reading others to break up the boredom. Was there a lot of information about Washington? Oh heck yeah. Did I learn some new things about him? Definitely. But for the average reader the information was is overkill. 5 stars for the dedicated research; 1 star for the storytelling. Both, to me, are equally important; hence this book earned 3 stars.
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Showing 21-30 of 58 posts in this discussion
Posted on Jun 10, 2011 9:35:42 PM PDT
Definitely not boring. I am not sure if it is personal preference or not, but this is the most interesting, engaging and informative book of the 8 I have read on Washington.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 12, 2011 2:16:07 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 12, 2011 2:16:41 PM PDT
EJ says:
I am sincerely glad that you liked it. Clearly my opinion is in the minority here.

Posted on Aug 17, 2011 10:29:23 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 18, 2011 6:17:01 AM PDT
Tom Poore says:
I don't agree at all that this book is boring. I chanced on it at my library and wasn't sure I wanted to slog through 900 pages. But Chernow hooked me from the start. Indeed, I found it to be a page-turner. The "endless source documentation" is almost entirely confined to the index and in no way disrupts the flow of the narrative--in fact, I hardly noticed it as I read, absorbed as I was in the story. Further, I found the author's writing style transparent, never calling attention to itself and admirable in its clarity. I also enjoyed his occasional sly humor: at the beginning of chapter 39, which describes Washington's post war life as a gentleman farmer, Chernow writes "Unable to tell a lie, Washington admitted in his diary that he had 'cut down the two cherry trees in the courtyard.'"

Posted on Aug 17, 2011 12:10:09 PM PDT
I am no scholar, but this book sparked in me a passion for American history. Ron Chernow's fusion of facts and character, along with superb writing, has compelled me to read more about our founding fathers. Washington, A Life will long stay with me.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 19, 2011 12:21:48 PM PDT
EJ says:
Tom and PQ, I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I don't agree about the writing style though. Potatoes, Potahtoes. Our differences make the world go 'round.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 27, 2011 5:45:10 PM PDT
Marigold says:
How historically accurate would you say the Mary Higgins Clark book on Washington is? I am the average armchair reader of history and biographies and, in fact, am thoroughly enjoying Chernow's book on GW right now.
I thought Mary Higgins Clark just wrote fiction.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 31, 2011 7:12:00 PM PDT
CJan says:
I just finished listening to the audio book version -- my opinion is that it was highly fictionalized, although I'm sure she did her research. To tell you the truth, I was a bit disappointed. I hoped that it would be more in-depth and that I'd learn about the relationships with his extended family. He was the guardian for some of his nephews after one of his brothers passed away. I would have liked to learn more about those relationships. None of that got into the book.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 3, 2011 10:18:08 AM PDT
Patrick,

I would wholly recommend Joseph Ellis' book as well, which E. Jacobs suggested in her reply. Scholarly, well-researched, and very readable, Ellis gives an exceptional portray of Washington in around 300 pages!! Give it a read, if you haven't already!!

Posted on Dec 18, 2011 12:11:36 PM PST
temps perdu says:
As an alternative to "A Life," I'd recommend "1776" by David McCullough, famed for solidly researched history that reads with the liveliness and pacing of a novel. This is one of McCullough's shorter books but it focuses centrally on Washington. You will not learn nearly as much as you'd like to about G.W.--for the simple reason that there is a paucity of source material. A guardedly private person, Washington himself made sure that a lot of it didn't survive, for example, his and Martha's correspondence. Washington was less educated, less of a writer, (probably less of a theorist and analyst), and decidedly not a self-promoter, as were several of the other important founders and early presidents about whom we know much more.

McCullough shows us the greatness of Washington as well as his shortcomings, within the broader context of the Revolution. We are with him on the battlefield (truly exciting!), witnessing his extraordinary sang-froid, leadership, and courage (occasionally veering into blind abandon). "John Adams," introduces us to G.W., but "1776" gives us a much expanded picture of the man--brilliant military leader, reluctant president, inveterate patriot. McCullough laments the lack of material that would allow us to know so much more about Washington's inner life, attitudes,and emotions, to say nothing of his personal relations. Utilizing what can be known from exhaustive research, he offers careful, well-reasoned conjecture about this very self-contained man.

Though I am only an "average reader," I trust and admire J.M. as a first-order historian. I would rather read a shorter, meatier book than have to wade through piles of boring minutia. Thank you, E. Jacobs, for helping to spare me--and thanks to your readers for suggestions about other books. I'm happy to read a long history book (Adams, "Team of Rivals") but I know history doesn't have to be boring or unselectively inclusive about detail.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 18, 2011 5:24:36 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 18, 2011 7:24:06 PM PST
Marigold says:
Please allow me to jump in here and with alacrity defend the Chernow book being reviewed.
I am about 3/4 of the way through it and have to say that I find it highly *readable* and not in the least bogged down with mind numbing minutia ---I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about GW's troubled relationship with his overbearing mother; about his fondness for nice clothes; his excellent riding ability and handling of his horses and how he enjoyed keeping company with pretty, scintillating ladies.
The morphing of Washington from a callow youth to a mature man of wisdom and courage albeit flawed LIKE ALL OF US, is related honestly and with empathy by the author.
There are two matters, however, that have troubled me about this book.
1. Chernow briefly delves into and repeats the business about Sally Heming and Jefferson in this book and he does so by citing DNA results that merely indicate a Jefferson connection to the Heming offspring.
There can only be an assumption that Thomas Jefferson sired Sally's children as there is no solid evidence, DNA or otherwise, to prove that he was the father.
I won't go into the possibility that Thomas' ignorant, moronic brother, Randolph, could just as easily and more probably sired those children as that is another story but Chernow does bring up the matter and it is a point with which I disagree.
2. Chernow has obviously decided that Washington considered the U.S. Constitution to be a *living document*. One that Washington rather assumed and even expected would undergo great changes as time marched on----a document that would not always be held to the Founders' intent.
I disagree with that notion and am not convinced that Washington or any of the other writers of the Constitution thought that.
Otherwise, so far, I give this book five big stars. I love it and plan to re-read it quickly so I can make sure I didn't miss anything.
Thank you, Ron Chernow. What a book!

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