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 thing 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.”

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

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Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

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2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

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Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

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3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

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Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

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4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

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The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

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5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

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Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

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6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

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This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

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7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

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Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

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8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

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What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

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9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

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Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

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10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

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Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

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Alice Dunnigan, the First Black Woman Journalist to Get White House Press Credentials

Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions
Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions

Alice Dunnigan’s birthplace of Russellville, Kentucky, is more than 700 miles from Washington, D.C. And for Black women journalists in the early 20th century, the dream of heading to the Capitol and covering national politics at the highest level seemed even more distant. But Dunnigan overcame racism, sexism, and other obstacles to make history as the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House. Dunnigan, whose grandparents were born into slavery, would combat discrimination and champion freedom of the press while covering three U.S. presidents.

A Long Road to Writing Success

Born on April 27, 1906, Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up in a cottage on a red clay hill outside Russellville, a former Confederate Civil War stronghold (population 5000). Dunnigan’s father was a tenant farmer, while her mother took in laundry. Their precocious daughter learned to read before entering the first grade, and she began writing for the Owensboro Enterprise when she was just 13. After graduating from the segregated Knob City High School in 1923, she completed a teaching course at Kentucky State University.

During Dunnigan’s 18-year career as a Todd County teacher, her annual salary never topped $800. Her aspirations went beyond teaching: She wrote “Kentucky Fact Sheets,” highlighting Black contributions to state history that the official curriculum omitted, and took journalism classes at Tennessee A&I College (now Tennessee State University). Her two marriages to tobacco farmer Walter Dickenson in 1925 and childhood pal Charles Dunnigan in 1932 did not pan out. To pursue her career, she made the tough decision to have her parents raise Robert, her son from her second marriage, for 17 years. In 1935, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she worked for Black-owned newspapers like the Louisville Defender.

With the Jim Crow era still in force and World War II raging, Dunnigan made her next big move to Washington, D.C., in 1942. Vying to escape poverty, she joined the federal civil service and earned $1440 a year as a War Labor Board clerk. Yet even four years later, when she was working as an economist after studying at Howard University and commanding a $2600 salary—double that of the average Black woman in the nation's capital—journalism kept calling her name.

Dunnigan became a Washington, D.C., correspondent in 1946 for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), the first Black-owned wire service, supplying more than 100 newspapers nationwide. It was her ticket to covering national politics.

Fearlessly Covering the White House

Dunnigan’s passion for journalism didn’t boost her bank account. Claude A. Barnett, her ANP publisher, gave her a starting monthly salary of $100—half of what his male writers earned. “Race and sex were twin strikes against me,” Dunnigan said later. “I’m not sure which was the hardest to break down.” To stay afloat financially, she often pawned her watch and shoveled coal, subsisting on basic food like hog ears and greens. To relax, she drank Bloody Marys and smoked her pipe.

Named ANP’s bureau chief in 1947, Dunnigan forged ahead as a political reporter despite Barnett’s skepticism. “For years we have tried to get a man accredited to the Capitol Galleries and have not succeeded,” Barnett told her. “What makes you think that you—a woman—can accomplish this feat?” Though the ANP had never endorsed her application for a Capitol press pass, Dunnigan's repeated efforts finally paid off. She was approved for a Capitol press pass in July 1947, and swiftly followed up with a successful request for White House media credentials.

In 1948, Dunnigan became a full-fledged White House correspondent. When she was invited to join the press corps accompanying President Harry S. Truman’s re-election campaign, Barnett declined to pay her way—so Dunnigan took out a loan and went anyway. As one of just three Black reporters and the only Black woman covering Truman’s whistle-stop tour out West, she experienced highs and lows.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming, when Dunnigan tried to walk with other journalists behind Truman’s motorcade, a military officer, assuming she was an interloper, pushed her back toward the spectators. Another journalist had to intervene on her behalf. Afterward, Truman found her typing in her compartment on the presidential Ferdinand Magellan train and said, “I heard you had a little trouble. Well, if anything else happens, please let me know.”

Dunnigan later landed a scoop in Missoula, Montana, when Truman got off the train at night in his dressing gown to address a crowd of students. Her headline read: “Pajama Clad President Defends Civil Rights at Midnight.”

Her relationship with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s was more contentious. The two-term Republican president disliked her persistent questions about hiring practices that discriminated against Black Americans, segregation at military base schools, and other civil rights issues. Max Rabb, an Eisenhower advisor, told her she should clear her questions with him in advance to get better answers. She agreed once, but never again. Subsequently, “Honest Ike” ignored Dunnigan at press conferences for years, despite her status as the first Black member of the Women’s National Press Club (1955).

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he called on Dunnigan eight minutes into his first press conference. She asked about protection for Black tenant farmers who had been evicted from their Tennessee homes simply for voting in the previous election. JFK replied, “I can state that this administration will pursue the problem of providing that protection, with all vigor.” Jet magazine then published this headline: “Kennedy In, Negro Reporter Gets First Answer in Two Years.”

New Career, New Achievements

Later in 1961, Dunnigan found a new calling. President Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Equal Opportunity, designed to level the playing field for Americans seeking federal government jobs. As an educational consultant, Dunnigan toured the U.S. and gave speeches. In 1967, she switched over to the Council on Youth Opportunity, where she spent four years as an editor, writing articles in support of young Black people.

After retiring, she self-published her 1974 autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. Dunnigan died at age 77 in 1983, but her legacy lives on. In 2013, she was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. CNN’s April Ryan, Lauretta Charlton of the New York Times, and others have hailed her as an inspiration.

In 2018, a 500-pound bronze statue of Dunnigan was unveiled at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Today, it stands outside the Struggles for Equality and Emancipation in Kentucky (SEEK) Museum in her native Russellville—a silent but powerful tribute to a woman who was never short on words.