13 Reading Tips From Theodore Roosevelt

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-USZ62-93318] //  No known restrictions on publication
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-USZ62-93318] // No known restrictions on publication

In April 1915, former president Theodore Roosevelt penned a piece for Ladies Home Journal titled “The Books That I Read and When and How I Do My Reading.” In it, he notes that “it would be impossible to try to enumerate all the books I read, or even all the kinds”—which is understandable, considering he typically read around a book a day and was often reading several books at a time.

Still, Roosevelt recommends plenty of books in the piece, name drops a few titles he’s not so crazy about, and doles out tons of reading tips in the process. Here are a few of them.

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1. Start reading young.

“Fathers and mothers who are wise,” Roosevelt wrote, “can train their children first to practice, and soon to like, the sustained mental application necessary to enjoy good books.” He also advised that parents have their children learn a second language, “so that at least one other great literature, in addition to our own noble English literature, shall be open to him or her.” On both counts, Roosevelt is drawing from his own experience: Confined to the indoors as a young boy because of his asthma, he read constantly. He also read in German, French, Italian, and Latin (although he didn’t enjoy reading in Latin; he called it drudgery).

2. Don’t force yourself to read what you don’t like.

“The reader’s personal and individual taste must be the guiding factor” when choosing a book, Roosevelt wrote. “I like hunting books and books of exploration and adventure. I do not ask anyone else to like them.”

Roosevelt notes that “the equation of personal taste is as powerful in reading as in eating; and within certain broad limits the matter is merely one of individual preference, having nothing to do with the quality either of the book or of the reader’s mind.”

He wrote that he likes “apples, pears, oranges, pineapples, and peaches. I dislike bananas, alligator pears and prunes … at times in the tropics I have been exceedingly sorry I could not learn to like bananas and on round-ups, in the cow country in the old days, it was even more unfortunate not to like prunes; but I simply could not make myself like either, and that was all there was to it.”

Roosevelt goes on to say that of the books he had tried to read in the last month, he could read Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Pendennis, Vanity Fair, Our Mutual Friend, and The Pickwick Papers over and over, but did not care for Fortunes of Nigel, Esmond, and The Old Curiosity Shop. “I have no question that the latter three books are as good as the first six,” he wrote. “Doubtless for other people they are better; but I do not like them, any more than I like prunes and bananas.”

And of course, as Roosevelt noted in his autobiography, a reader “must not hypocritically pretend to like what he does not like.”

3. Take book recommendations with a grain of salt.

You’re the best person to choose what books you want to read. “If a man or woman is fond of books he or she will naturally seek the books that the mind and soul demand,” Roosevelt wrote. “Suggestions of a possibly helpful character can be made by outsiders, but only suggestions; and they will probably be helpful about in proportion to the outsider’s knowledge of the mind and soul of the person to be helped.”

Or, as he wrote in his autobiography, “The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.” And all readers “should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls ‘the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”

4. Train yourself to enjoy the classics ...

Roosevelt has a lot to say about personal preference when it comes to books, and how that should dictate what someone reads. However, he also has opinions about reading classics versus reading … the trashy stuff. “If anyone finds that he never reads serious literature, if all his reading is frothy and trashy, he would do well to try to train himself to like books that the general agreement of cultivated and sound-thinking persons has placed among the classics,” he wrote. “Let man or woman, young man or girl, read some good author, say Gibbon or Macaulay, until sustained mental effort brings power to enjoy the books worth enjoying.”

Only when this has been done can the reader “trust himself to pick out for himself the particular good books which appeal to him.”

5. … And avoid “vicious” books.

Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that “books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another.”

Still, in “How I Do My Reading,” he wrote that personal preference isn’t an excuse for “permitting oneself to like what is vicious or even simply worthless.” What he means by that, we can ascertain from what follows, are books that deal with sex—which makes sense, given that Roosevelt was quite proper (some might have called him a prude).

He wrote that “If any man finds that he cares to read Bel Ami"—Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel about a poor young man’s scandalous rise to power—“he will do well to keep a watch on the reflex centers of his moral nature.” (Roosevelt advised picking up books by French dramatist Eugene Brieux or writer Henry Bordeaux if one finds himself in this particular situation.) Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace are great books to read, but if his reader prefers the author’s 1890 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata—another book that, like Bel Ami, deals with sex—“he had better make up his mind that for pathological reasons he will be wise thereafter to avoid Tolstoy entirely. Tolstoy is an exceedingly interesting and stimulating writer, but an exceedingly unsafe moral advisor.

“It is clear the reading of vicious books for pleasure should be eliminated,” Roosevelt concluded. “It is no less clear that trivial and vulgar books do more damage than can possibly be offset by any entertainment they yield.”

6. Don’t be afraid to follow a topic that interests you.

Roosevelt wrote that he reads in “streaks,” where he gets interested in a particular subject and reads about it in book after book after book, “and probably also [reads] books on subjects suggested by it … Even in pure literature, having nothing to do with history, philosophy, sociology or economy, one book will often suggest another, so that one finds one has unconsciously followed a regular course of reading.”

7. Find a few minutes to read everyday.

You may think that you’re too busy to read, but Theodore Roosevelt would disagree—he always found time to fit in a book (or four) every day. He wrote that he could “almost always” read in the evenings, and if he was otherwise occupied, he’d schedule half an hour of reading before bed. But he never limited himself to just the evening for reading. “All kinds of odd moments turn up during even a busy day, in which it is possible to enjoy a book,” he wrote. “And then there are rainy afternoons in the country in autumn, and stormy days in winter, when one’s work outdoors is finished and after wet clothes have been changed for dry, the rocking chair in front of the open wood fire simply demands an accompanying book.”

8. Read big books on vacations.

Theodore Roosevelt, who traveled quite frequently, knew the value of bringing a good book along on vacation. “Railway and steamboat journeys were, of course, predestined through the ages as aids to the enjoyment of reading,” he wrote. “I have always taken books with me when on hunting and exploring trips.” He put Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in his bag on hunting trips; when pursuing boat thieves in the Dakotas, he brought along a copy of Anna Karenina (he finished it on the trip, then borrowed a dime novel from one of the thieves); and he took 60 books—given to him by his younger sister, Corinne—on his year-long African safari.

“In such cases the literature should be reasonably heavy, in order that it may last,” he wrote. Being “under these conditions” allows the reader to tackle more ambitious books and authors, “as you never would if surrounded by less formidable authors in your own library; and when you do reach the journey’s end you grasp with eager appetite at old magazines, or at the lightest of literature.”

9. Use reading as a respite from the real world.

Roosevelt notes that the “best critics scorn the demand among novel readers for ‘the happy ending,’” but he personally didn’t see anything wrong with happy endings in novels, especially because real life is tough enough. “There are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple; and when I turn to the world of literature … I do not care to study suffering unless for some sufficient purpose. It is only a very exceptional novel which I will read if He does not marry Her; and even in exceptional novels I much prefer this consummation. I am not defending my attitude. I am merely stating it.”

Later, he wrote (and one gets the sense that he’s speaking from experience here) that “if one is worried by all kinds of men and events—during critical periods in administrative office, or at national conventions, or during congressional investigations or in hard-fought political campaigns—it is the greatest relief and unalloyed delight to take up some really good, some really enthralling book … and lose all memory of everything grimy, and of the baseness that must be parried or conquered.”

10. Let your mood dictate what you read.

Roosevelt was widely read, devouring books on everything from history and the military to volumes of poetry and natural history. “A man with a real fondness for books of various kinds will find that his varying moods determine which of these books he at the moment needs.”

TR also wrote in his autobiography, “A book must be interesting to the particular reader at that particular time.” So there’s no shame in putting a book aside if it’s not what you’re in the mood for at the moment!

11. Focus on reading of “permanent value.”

If there’s one thing you’ll learn from reading “How I Read,” it’s that TR seems to prefer classics to brand-new books. “Another matter which within certain rather wide limits each reader must settle for himself is the dividing line between (1) not knowing anything about current books and (2) swamping one’s soul in the sea of vapidity which overwhelms him who reads only ‘the last new books,’” he wrote, adding that the headline “books of the week” is damning both for the books and the reviewer:

“I would much rather see the heading ‘books of the year before last.’ A book of the year before last which is still worth noticing, would probably be worth reading; but one only entitled to be called a book of the week had better be tossed into the wastebasket at once. Still, there are plenty of new books which are not of permanent value but which nevertheless are worth more or less careful reading; partly because it is well to know something of what especially interested the mass of our fellows, and partly because these books, although of ephemeral worth, may really set forth something genuine in a fashion which for the moment stirs the hearts of all of us.”

12. Ignore lists of the best “100 books,” and forget about that “5-foot library.”

Roosevelt, whose own library at Sagamore Hill spanned multiple rooms (an accounting of all of the family’s books from 1919 was 77 pages long [PDF]), was no fan of “best books” lists and what he called a “5-foot library.” (He’s referring to Harvard’s “5-foot shelf,” a compilation of 51 works of literature. According to Project Gutenberg, “Dr. Eliot, then president of Harvard University, had stated in speeches that the elements of a liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a 5-foot shelf.”) “There remain enormous masses of books, of which no one man can read more than a limited number, and among which each reader should choose those which meet his own particular needs,” TR wrote. “There is no such things as a list of ‘the 100 best books’ or the ‘best 5-foot library.’ … To attempt to create such a library that shall be of universal value is foreordained to futility.”

In his autobiography, he wrote that he had “no sympathy” for either concept, saying, “It is all right for a man to amuse himself by composing a list of a hundred very good books; and if he is to go off for a year or so where he cannot get many books, it is an excellent thing to choose a 5-foot library of particular books which in that particular year and on that particular trip he would like to read. But there is no such thing as a hundred books that are best for all men, or for the majority of men, or for one man at all times; and there is no such thing as a 5-foot library which will satisfy the needs of even one particular man on different occasions extending over a number of years.”

13. Read historical works to feel better about the present.

Roosevelt wrote that books can provide “consolation of a non-literary kind.” He advised that those who are irritated or frustrated or depressed about the current state of affairs might find reading books that deal with history “illuminating” or “consoling.” In some cases, “he will be …. devoutly thankful that his lot has been cast in the present age, in spite of all its faults.”

Why We Eat What We Eat On Thanksgiving

monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images
monkeybusinessimages/iStock via Getty Images

When Americans sit down with their families for Thanksgiving dinner, most of them will probably gorge themselves on the same traditional Thanksgiving menu, with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie taking up the most real estate on the plates. How did these dishes become the national "what you eat on Thanksgiving" options, though?

Why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving?

It's not necessarily because the pilgrims did it. Turkey may not have been on the menu at the 1621 celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth that is considered the first Thanksgiving (though some historians and fans of Virginia's Berkeley Plantation might quibble with the "first" part). There were definitely wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, though, as colonist William Bradford noted in his book Of Plymouth Plantation.

However, the best existing account of the Pilgrims' harvest feast comes from colonist Edward Winslow, the primary author of Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow's first-hand account of the first Thanksgiving included no explicit mention of turkey. He does, however, mention the Pilgrims gathering wild fowl for the meal, although that could just as likely have meant ducks or geese.

When it comes to why we eat turkey on Thanksgiving today, it helps to know a bit about the history of the holiday. While the idea of giving thanks and celebrating the harvest was popular in certain parts of the country, it was by no means an annual national holiday until the 19th century. Presidents would occasionally declare a Thanksgiving Day celebration, but the holiday hadn't completely caught on nationwide. Many of these early celebrations included turkey; Alexander Hamilton once remarked, "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

When Bradford's journals were reprinted in 1856 after being lost for at least half a century, they found a receptive audience with advocates who wanted Thanksgiving turned into a national holiday. Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the autumn of 1621 and since turkey is a uniquely North American (and scrumptious) bird, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving meal of choice for Americans after Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Moreover, there were pragmatic reasons for eating turkey rather than, say, chicken at a feast like Thanksgiving. The birds are large enough that they can feed a table full of hungry family members, and unlike chickens or cows, they don't serve an additional purpose like laying eggs or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn't so common that it seemed like an unsuitable choice for a special occasion, either.

Did the pilgrims have cranberry sauce?

While the cranberries the Pilgrims needed were probably easy to come by, making cranberry sauce requires sugar. Sugar was a rare luxury at the time of the first Thanksgiving, so while revelers may have eaten cranberries, it's unlikely that the feast featured the tasty sauce. What's more, it's not even entirely clear that cranberry sauce had been invented yet. It's not until 1663 that visitors to the area started commenting on a sweet sauce made of boiled cranberries that accompanied meat.

There's the same problem with potatoes. Neither sweet potatoes nor white potatoes were available to the colonists in 1621, so the Pilgrims definitely didn't feast on everyone's favorite tubers.

How about pumpkin pie?

It may be the flagship dessert at modern Thanksgiving dinners, but pumpkin pie didn't make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims probably lacked the butter and flour needed to make a pie crust, and it's not clear that they even had an oven in which they could have baked a pumpkin pie. That doesn't mean pumpkins weren't available for the meal, though; they were probably served after being baked in the coals of a fire or stewed. Pumpkin pie became a popular dish on 17th-century American tables, though, and it might have shown up for Thanksgiving as early as the 1623 celebration of the holiday.

This article originally appeared in 2008.

15 Colorful Facts About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still life paintings are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born on November 15, 1887, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.

1. Flower paintings make up a small percentage of Georgia O'Keeffe's body of work.

Though Georgia O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.

2. Georgia O'Keeffe rejected sexual interpretations of her paintings.

For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.

3. Georgia O'Keeffe was not a native of the American Southwest.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.

4. Georgia O'Keeffe’s favorite studio was the backseat of a Model-A Ford.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, former curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.

5. Georgia O'Keeffe also painted skyscrapers.

While nature was O'Keeffe's main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night, and The Shelton with Sunspots.

6. Georgia O'Keeffe immersed herself in nature.

While in New Mexico, O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.

7. Not even bad weather could keep Georgia O'Keeffe away from her work.

The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

8. Georgia O'Keeffe married the man behind her first gallery show.

"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.

9. Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz wrote 25,000 pages of love letters to each other.

When the pair met in 1916, Stieglitz was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.

10. Georgia O'Keeffe served as a muse to other artists.

Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

"When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than 60 years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then."

11. Georgia O'Keeffe quit painting—three times.

The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.

12. After going blind, Georgia O'Keeffe turned to sculpting.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.

13. Georgia O'Keeffe is the mother of American Modernism.

Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.

14. Georgia O'Keeffe blazed new trails for female artists.

In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.

15. Georgia O'Keeffe wasn't fearless, but she rejected fear.

O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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