Audiobook Review: Abraham Lincoln: A Presidential Life

Abraham Lincoln:  A Presidential Life, by James M. McPherson, narrated by John McDonough

This immensely short book (only two cds) manages to give the listener a pleasant experience and a worthwhile one.  Those readers who enjoy reading a great deal about Abraham Lincoln and his political thought and intriguing life story [1] already may find this book as I did, a book that one knows well and can quote at length on one’s first read (or listen) simply because it quotes so much material that is already familiar.  And it is not as if this book provided a lot that was new about Abraham Lincoln, at least not to me, but for those readers who want a short biography of Lincoln, this is still an excellent one because it combines McPherson’s felicitous sense of prose [2] with a worthwhile subject whose own words are kept fully in mind as well.  Perhaps, like more than one author, McPherson’s own style has been richly enhanced by his own love of Lincoln’s prose, whose elegance has seeped into his writing and improved it with a sense of poetry and timing and graciousness.  It is an appealing thought to think that the author owes something of his own worthy style to one of the most notable stylists of the English language, one of many appealing thoughts that will likely come over someone while reading or listening to this book.

In terms of its contents, the author spends roughly half of his time discussing Lincoln’s life before the start of the Civil War, and about half of his time discussing Lincoln’s behavior as commander-in-chief after the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, including commentary about the aftermath of his presidency and the struggle over reconstruction as well as the way that Lincoln’s reputation as a martyr to the cause of republican virtue was much different than his fairly divisive reputation as a president in the midst of civil war.  Despite the brevity of his account, the author manages to hit the high and low points of Lincoln’s life–his difficult family situation, his heroic struggle for self-education through voracious reading, his struggles with courtship and against mental illness, his career as a lawyer and his passion for politics, his love of stories, his desire for the ferocious prosecution of war, his desire for solutions to the immense binds between his public duty and his oft-expressed private wishes, his essential magnanimity of character combined with a ferocious sense of wit, and so on.  The author quotes and paraphrases a lot of Lincoln’s prose, and as a result the book is itself highly quotable.

The only flaw that can be found in the book is really that it is so short.  Its brevity forbids the author from going into areas that he is well familiar with but does not have time to discuss–like Lincoln’s foreign policy or his rise to gentlemanly status, but this book is meant for the reader who does not have the time or interest in a sustained and deep study of Lincoln that can only be gained from extensive research but rather for a brief biography of a man about whom it is vital to know in his own words as much as possible.  Those readers who are new to a study of Lincoln will find much in here that will repay their study and reward their curiosity, and this book will or has likely served as as gateway book for a lot of people just discovering Abraham Lincoln and leaving this book wanting to read and study more.  As that is likely its purpose, this is a book I wholeheartedly recommend to those who are interested in acquiring an interest in which one is unlikely to ever run out of books to read about.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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