‘A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington’ tells the story of Washington’s reading habits (and how they benefited him). You can read only the introduction and get the main message: he read a lot and the things he read allowed him to grow as a military and political leader. The rest of the book is a detailed exploration of this thesis alongside some of the supporting evidence.
Extensive and deep reading alike were important throughout his career. In one of the most fascinating sub-sections, Harrison shows how Washington’s military campaign benefited from some of the latest military theories of the day, both in terms of tactics and strategy.
I benefited from the way the book proceeded chronologically through Washington’s life, not being familiar (at all) with the events of the American Revolution and the time period being examined. One of my first questions to other readers (over on Goodreads) was the extent to which someone not immersed in this American history could read this book without trouble, and I’m pleased to report that relative newbies like myself shouldn’t find much issue.
This book is repurposed from a PhD thesis, and it tells. The narrative is sometimes diverted to a discussion of sources or the evidence on which certain claims rest. This is all fine and proper, though it disrupts the flow. I wonder whether those discussions might not have been relegated to an appendix. That said, I also occasionally felt that too much was made out of the baseline evidence on which the book seems to rest, i.e. the records of which books were owned, annotated and/or read by Washington. Harrison writes a lot about the various ways we can deduce what Washington might have been reading at period X or Y, but as a reader myself I felt disappointed that somehow we hardly ever seemed to actually catch Washington directly in the act.
One of the points that I found most interesting was how Washington seemed to go about selecting his books. There were fewer titles at the time, so he seemed to have more opportunity or necessity for deep reading (annotating copies line-by-line, for example) than in the present day where it’s probably easier to develop habits of wide/extensive reading that are ultimately shallow. A fascinating section in this respect was where Washington decides he needs to overhaul his farm and agricultural practices, and Harrison shows how he used what he read to take a risky but ultimately profitable decision to reform and overhaul how he managed his land.