I had heard amazing things about David McCullough's research and writing abilities but hadn't read anything by him until John Adams. I bought it purely because I was looking for some audio books to listen to during my long trips visiting family. Lucky for me, I found an unabridged copy on sale for $9.99 at Borders. Since buying this audio book, I've seen the collection sell for as much as $40+ dollars, so I'm especially elated at the price of the purchase.
I had no idea what was before me when I started this audio book. It took my husband and I almost a year to finish John Adams. That wasn't because we weren't enjoying it. On the contrary, we absolutely loved the facts, details, and personality that McCullough created in this biography of a truly prolific American and one of the finest presidents of our time. We didn't want the book to end, and I cried when it did. I'm actually glad I listened to John Adams rather than read it because it would have taken even longer to finish it. My hands would have been very occupied taking copious notes of interesting tidbits about Adams' life and his loving relationship with Abagail. I could see myself saving myriad amounts of direct quotes from Adams' own writings and letters. Eventually, I did purchase a paperback copy of this biography to track some of the data in it. John Adams was a pioneer in American history and did much more for our country and its people than the average citizen realizes.
I tried to find a favorite part from the biography, but it was very difficult to choose just one because of the massive expanse of time and data covered. If you twisted my arm until I picked just one moment from John Adams, it would have to be the letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams that never got delivered. It was written when Adams beat Jefferson and became the second president of the United States of America, right before the two really began to quarrel. Jefferson was persuaded from delivering it by the ever meddling Madison. McCullough speculates that the letter might have changed Adams' presidency. It broke my heart to hear such praise and confidence from one close friend to another get lost in a file until some historian unearthed it many years later. As for my least favorite part, it would have to be the end of the book. I was very sad to see both the biography and John Adams' life come to a close.
Honestly, I enjoyed the entire biography. The layout is chronological:
- Early Childhood
- School Years
- Career as a Lawyer
- Marriage to Abagail
- Foreign Ambassador Services
- Vice President
- Retired Years
The primary setting is America, specifically the original thirteen colonies, although there are plenty of international scenes explored thanks to John Adams' and his son's travels as American Ambassadors. The purpose of the book is to deliver a thorough biography of a relatively obscure American president (compared to such historical giants as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln). The character development presents a realistic portrayal of a complex man, husband, father, and president. There are no particular themes, motifs, and literary devices used, although McCullough emphasizes some overarching characteristics such as honor, loyalty, stubbornness, steadfastness, Christian morality, pride, and love.
A few facts that I enjoyed:
- Adams seriously courted a woman before Abagail Adams.
- Adams defended the British soldiers from the Boston Massacre.
- Adams played a major role in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
- Adams was an unstoppable force who called for independence when many other "brave Americans" balked at the difficulties the nation would have and did have because of the war and split with Britain.
- Adams helped draft the Constitution.
- Adams had a tumultuous relationship with both Franklin and Jefferson.
- Adams firmly disapproved of slavery and never owned one his entire life (neither did his wife Abagail).
I could list tidbits forever, but that would take away from the joy of discovering them yourself when reading this truly fascinating piece of history.
John Adams wasn't a perfect man, and he made many mistakes:
- How Adams developed his relationships with others.
- Adams' sometimes short temper
- Certain actions Adams took while president
- And perhaps his Achilles heel-- Adams' self-degrading attitude (He was always his worst critic.)
Though he found himself acting too proud for his own good, Adams was a man who put his nation and its people as the second most important aspect of his life (God was always first). Adams' Christian morality allowed him to lead a life that I find inspirational for his time period and even our own. As I learned more about this mysterious historical figure (for I had learned little about him in my history classes), I discovered someone that I'm proud to call an American and Founding Father. Here is a man I would love to have a philosophical, religious, or political conversation with. Adams' intelligence, caring nature, and love of literature made me fall in love with him just as his wife did. Abigail Adams' was truly a lucky woman to have known him as intimately as she did, being his true love and confidant. If I could meet any person from history, it would be John Adams.
David McCullough has a gift for exposing the careful details of a historical figure's life. Because of this talent, the book is accessible to any audience. Even if one doesn't like history, this is a great way to change that mindset. To some degree, the book reads like a novel, and John Adams takes on a fictional role of greatness akin to Macbeth or Romeo. He is larger than the contents of the book, and the audio version will probably compel many to finish this read more than the text version, which is massive and daunting for many readers.
Nelson Runger reads the book. He has an excellent voice and changes his tone/inflection when quoting from Adams' original writing, which makes it easier for the listener to acknowledge the primary sources versus the secondary sources/the researcher's commentary. The mobility of the audio books is the real draw and is very handy for anyone that travels a lot. You can listen to the book in the car, in the comfort of one's home, or even during a workout session at the gym (which is actually a lot of fun because you can stimulate both your body and mind).
The only qualms I have about Nelson Runger's voice is that sometimes it's too low and comes off as "soothing," which makes me sleepy during a nonfiction read. There were times when I found myself nodding off and dreaming that I was living in the era of the early Americans (not necessarily a bad thing). Thankfully, it was very simple to skip to the previous tracks. Still, I recommend listening to this piece when one is awake and alert to really appreciate all the information in this fantastic book.
Overall, this is a must have book for anyone who calls themselves an American. Even foreigners will appreciate this historical gem. I've never had the pleasure to read such a piece of nonfiction/biographical writing. I hope to find more like this one in the future and will especially look for some of McCullough's other biographies. Eventually, I want to watch the HBO mini-series that was adapted from this book to write a comparison/contrast piece.
There are really only two negatives about this audio book:
- Nelson Runger's voice might make you sleepy if you're not alert when listening to the audio book.
- There is no bibliography or footnote references of the historical research for the reader to use for further exploration.
Ultimately, there is no reason not to try this audio book and experience a new side of American history. Bring the past to life with this timeless nonfiction classic. If I ever teach an American History class, I will be sure to reference parts from this book purely because it's a treasure-trove of information with new facts for students to discover daily.
Note: I have submitted this review for The Celebrate America Write-Off, submission deadline July 4, 2011.