There is something about immersing oneself in an intricately detailed
book. I am currently reading James Madison: A Biographyby
Ralph Ketcham. I will use this as an example. This biography is 671 pages long,
not including endnotes. These 671 pages are not conventional pages. They are
large and dense. I would estimate that had this book been formatted like most
books, it would run well over one thousand pages. The work goes into minute
examinations and analyses of all sorts of topics concerning both Madison and
his period and place.
Madison’s time studying at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, is covered in great depth.
Examining these years in Madison’s life is indeed important, as several of
America’s Founders attended this institution during this time. The philosophy and
theology espoused and taught there by its president, John Witherspoon at that
time, had a significant impact on these men as well as upon the Revolution
itself. Though the College of New Jersey figured somewhat importantly in other
works that I have read concerning this era, none has delved as deeply as
Ketcham’s book. Other authors, including the biographers of other attendees,
have appropriately emphasized the college’s influence, but have provided only a
fraction of information that this work does. This book explores and analyzes the
philosophy, politics and theology, in serious detail, to which Madison and
others were exposed. It devotes many pages to the actual works of the philosophers
and historians that were taught and that Madison read. Finally, Ketcham even describes
living arraignments, dietary habits, student hijinks, etc., that characterized attendance
at the school. This is just one chapter in a twenty-two-chapter book.
I must point out that The American Revolutionary
period is my “thing.” Approximately twenty percent of all of my reading is
dedicated to the subject. I intentionally chose Ketcham’s book over shorter and
less detailed biographies because I hungered for the detail.
In my younger days this is the kind of book that I
would begin, make it through a hundred or so pages, become bored and never finish.
I can say with confidence that, being about two hundred pages in at the time of
this writing, I will not only finish, but I will enjoy every page. As I have
gotten older, I have changed. When it comes to reading, at least, I have
developed much patience. I have learned that reading and learning is a journey
and not a means to a destination. Furthermore, a certain type of curiosity has
grown in me. Not just the curiosity derived from wanting to know about a person
like Madison and his times, but a curiosity to understand and ponder the
details, the real nitty-gritty stuff, concerning various subjects. I now take
great joy in drilling deep down like this.
I believe that for a serious reader, detailed and intricate
reading of this sort is essential. Of course, I would not look to read such a
book on just any topic. For instance, lately I have been delving just a wee bit
into literary criticism and theory. I wanted to get a basic introduction on
that subject and maybe read some seminal works. I would never look for this
much depth on that or on many other topics. However, as I mentioned, the
American Revolutionary era is a kind of life concentration for me. Furthermore,
Madison is a vital figure out of this time and place, one who, to some extent,
I have neglected until now.
Compared to most history books, this one obviously
embodies great depth. Though this is the sort of book that one might only read occasionally, I think
that this sort of book really should
be read occasionally.
There are, of course, other areas where I yearn to
dig as deep. Certain forms of literature and philosophy come to mind. Part of
the challenge is picking and choosing. Sadly, there is insufficient time in
life to delve into everything that I want to at this level. Thus, I have made
conscious decisions to stay closer to the surface in some areas. As it is, I
feel that I am not devoting enough reading time to the areas that I want to. I must
limit my interests!
The joys of such meticulous works are understandably
not something that everyone will appreciate. For a good chunk of my life, I found
it impossible. I can attribute my ability to tackle such books partially as the
result of getting a little older. However, I observe lots of younger people
who, unlike the way that I was, are prepared for such intellectual challenges
without needing to wait. I for one am glad that I have evolved to this point.
As the old saying goes, better late then never!