Theodore Roosevelt’s Reading Tips

In his life, Theodore Roosevelt was a renowned American president, naturalist, and hunter. He is most known for the 26th Amendment which granted citizens over 18 the right to vote. In his spare time he loved reading books about history and hunting expeditions with fellow friends in North Dakota.-

Editor’s note: Theodore Roosevelt is regarded for being one of history’s most avid readers. He could read up to three novels every day at breakneck speed. As a result, he was often questioned about his reading habits, and he wisely answered in a variety of ways. One was a letter in which he suggested a reading list for a young guy.

In his autobiography, he spoke about his library at his Sagamore Hill house, the genres and authors he favored to read and collect, as well as a few pieces of advice that all readers should take note of. TR had a delightfully open view to what defines excellent reading habits, as you’ll see.

In his autobiography, he spoke about his library at his Sagamore Hill house, the genres and authors he favored to read and collect, as well as a few pieces of advice that all readers should take note of. TR had a delightfully open view to what defines excellent reading habits, as you’ll see.

I couldn’t think of a single guiding idea that the novels [at Sagamore Hill] are based on. Friendships are nearly as unique as books. There’s no use in enacting universal rules regarding them. Some meet the needs of one person, while others serve the needs of another; and each person should be wary of the booklover’s affliction, what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe refers to as “the mad pride of intellectuality,” which takes the form of arrogant pity for the man who does not enjoy the same kind of books.

Of course, there are books that a man or woman employs as professional equipment, such as legal books, medical books, and cuisine books. I’m not talking about them, since they’re not really “books” at all; they’re more like timetables, phone directories, and other important civilized living tools. I’m referring to books that are intended to be read. Personally, assuming that these books are respectable and healthy, the one criterion to which I hold them all is that they must be engaging. In all but an infinitesimal number of circumstances, if the book is not entertaining to the reader, it is of no use to the reader.

Of course, a reader’s taste should be developed so that excellent literature appeal to them and garbage does not. However, once this stage has been achieved, each reader’s demands must be satisfied in a way that appeals to those needs. Personally, the books that have benefitted me enormously more than any others have been those in which profit was a by-product of pleasure; that is, I read them because I enjoyed them, and the profit came in as a by-product of the happiness.

Of course, each person is likely to have certain unique likes that he cannot expect more than a few close pals to share. Now, I’m really pleased of my large-game collection. I’m sure there are many more substantial big-game libraries in Continental Europe, and probably in England, than mine, but I have yet to come across one in the United States. Some of the originals date from the sixteenth century, and there are copies or replicas of two or three of the Middle Ages’ most renowned hunting books, including the Duke of York’s translation of Gaston Phoebus and the Emperor Maximilian’s strange book. I only come into people who are interested in any of these books on rare occasions. On the other side, I anticipate to meet a lot of people who will naturally gravitate toward some of the old or new poetry, romance, or history novels that we read in our family. Let me point you that our library is not a collector’s library in any way. Each book was purchased because a member of the family expressed an interest in reading it. We could never afford to give the outsides of books too much attention since we were much more interested in the insides.

 

When people ask me “what literature a politician should read,” I always say poetry and novels, which includes short stories under the heading of novels. I don’t mean he should limit himself to books and contemporary poetry. He should feel sad if he can’t appreciate the Hebrew prophets and Greek dramatists as well. He should study intriguing works on history and governance, as well as books on science and philosophy; really excellent writings on these topics are as captivating as any fiction ever written in prose or poetry. Why should we care about Gibbon and Macaulay, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus, the Heimskringla, Froissart, Joinville and Villehardouin, Parkman and Mahan, Mommsen and Ranke? There are many good histories, some of the finest in the world, that are as engrossing as the best of all books and have lasting worth.

The same can be said of Darwin, Huxley, Carlyle, and Emerson, as well as parts of Kant, and books like Sutherland’s “Growth of the Moral Instinct,” Acton’s Essays, and Lounsbury’s studies — I’m not trying to group books together, compare them, or enumerate one in a thousand of those worth reading, but simply to show that any man or woman of some intelligence and cultivation can engage in serious thought,

I don’t intend to imply that the statesman shouldn’t read a variety of novels of this kind, just as everyone else should. But, in the end, the statesman, publicist, reformer, agitator for new things, and upholder of what is good in old things all need to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or poetry.

The range of options is so vast that it seems insane to me to attempt to create catalogs that would appeal to all of the world’s greatest minds. That is why I have zero compassion with lists like the One Hundred Best Books or the Five-Foot Library. It’s OK for a guy to entertain himself by compiling a list of a hundred outstanding books; and if he’s going away for a year or more and won’t be able to purchase many books, it’s a great idea to assemble a five-foot library of specific novels that he’d want to read during that year and on that journey. However, there is no such thing as a hundred books that are best for all men, the majority of men, or one man at all times; and there is no such thing as a five-foot library that would meet the demands of even one man on various occasions over a period of years.

 

For one mood, Milton is ideal, but for another, Pope is ideal. A man should not feel excluded from Tennyson, Kipling, Korner, Heine, or the Bard of the Dimbovitza because he like Whitman, Browning, or Lowell. Tolstoy’s works are fine at times, and Sienkiewicz’s are at other times; and whoever can appreciate Salammbo and Tom Brown and The Two Admirals and Quentin Durward and Artemus Ward and the Ingoldsby Legends and Pickwick and Vanity Fair is lucky. Why, there are hundreds of books like this, each of which, if properly read and digested by the person to whom it is addressed, will allow that person to subconsciously arm himself with a great deal of ammo to employ in life’s battles.

A book must be fascinating to the reader at the moment it is published. However, there are tens of thousands of intriguing books, some of which are only available to certain individuals and not to others; and some of which excite the spirit at one period in a man’s life but impart no message at other times. The reader, the bookworm, must fulfill his own requirements without regard for what his neighbors think those needs should be. He must not act as though he likes something he doesn’t enjoy. At the same time, he must avoid the most repulsive of all the signs of inflated vanity, which is to see a single, potentially regrettable, idiosyncrasy as a source of pride. I’m a big fan of Macbeth, but I don’t read Hamlet very often (though I like parts of it). Now, I am well aware that this is a flaw in me, not in Hamlet; but, it would be pointless for me to pretend that I like Hamlet as much as Macbeth when, in reality, I do not.

Simple epics and ballad poetry have always appealed to me, from Nibelungenlied and Roland song to “Chevy Chase,” “Patrick Spens,” and “Twa Corbies,” as well as Scott’s poems and Longfellow’s “Saga of King Olaf” and “Othere.” On the other hand, I don’t usually love reading dramas; I can only read them if they have a significant emotional appeal for me. They must nearly be Aeschylus or Euripides, Goethe or Moliere, so that I do not experience a feeling of righteous pleasure in having completed a work after completing them. Now, I’ll be the first to argue that even the most delightful old English ballad should be compared to any of the scores of dramatic works by authors I haven’t mentioned; I know that each of these dramatists has written something more valuable than the ballad; but I enjoy the ballad, and I don’t enjoy the drama; and thus the ballad is better for me, and this fact is unaffected by the fact that my own shortcomings are to blame in the matter. I still read a lot of Scott’s works again and over, but I have a sensation that finishing anything by Miss Austen is a rainbow to the soul. Other booklovers who are quite near to me, and whose taste I know to be superior to mine, read Miss Austen all the time — and, furthermore, they are really kind, and never pity me for not reading her themselves.

 

Aside from the masters of literature, there are a variety of books that one person will like, and which he should not give up simply because no one else can find as much pleasure in the treasured volume. A tiny pre-Victorian story or fable called The Semi-Attached Couple is on our book shelf. It’s done with a lot of wit; it’s a narrative about gentlefolk who are really gentlefolk; and it’s all around pleasant to me. But, outside of my immediate family, I have never encountered a person who has even heard of it, and I doubt I will ever meet one. I often admire a narrative by a live author so much that I write to tell him — or her — how much I appreciate it; and at least half of the time, I regret my behavior since it encourages the writer to feel that the public shares my views, which he later discovers is not the case.