Over the past few years, I’ve developed what you might call a sub-hobby. When I’m visiting a used book store, in addition to looking for stuff on my TBR, I’m also looking for what I’ll call “forgotten” books.
To me, a “forgotten” book is a book that meets the following criteria.
- While not necessarily having to be old, significant time must have passed from its publication, with it having received little attention since then.
- It may contain some content that could be called dated.
- It has to be a title that I, personally, have never even remotely heard of.
- A quick google search reveals little about it.
One of my favorite places to hunt for forgotten books is at Unicorn Bookshop in Trappe, Maryland. A landmark of the Delmarva Peninsula since 1975, Unicorn Bookshop is the most chaotic book store I’ve ever been in. Every available inch of wall and floor space is jammed full of every book imaginable. Other than a somewhat sense of placement by genre, there is no emphasis on organization.
I love this.
I have never gone into Unicorn Bookshop in search of particular book and come out with it. But this is why Amazon or Barnes and Noble exist, not Unicorn Bookshop.
Instead, Unicorn Bookshop exists to connect the reader to unexpected wonders. Inside its cinder block walls I have found, among other things:
- A dual biography of Errol Flynn and his son Sean Flynn that I didn’t know existed despite of having read every other Flynn biography.
- Several well worn Eastern Shore histories (Read Local History!)
- Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which I have wanted to read since my 6th Grade U.S. history regaled my class with the gross details (My middle school and local library sadly didn’t have a copy)
My most recent discovery at Unicorn Bookshop was Theodore Roosevelt: The Boy and The Man by James Morgan. First published in 1907, as it states “at the height of Roosevelt’s administration,” my copy is a 1919 reprint, with an two added chapters chronicling his latter years and death.
I’ve always been fascinated by our only cowboy and conservationist president. While I must resist the urge to name him “my favorite” or “the most interesting” president, there is just something exciting about studying T.R., which can’t be said for most other presidents.
Now, It must be stated that Theodore Roosevelt: The Boy and The Man does not offer a nuanced portrayal of T.R. It does not mention his racism, unabashed imperialism, and as Clay Jenkinson put it, his “blood lust” for war. Instead, it offers a simplistic and aggrandizing view of a president that would be viewed as pure propaganda if written today. I choose to read this book at the same time that I was watching Ken Burn’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. This served to offer more nuanced version of T.R., including more of his faults, such as the Brownsville affair, which Theodore Roosevelt: The Boy and the Man leaves out.
Glorification of T.R. aside, for the scholar and the casual reader, there are things of value to take from Theodore Roosevelt: The Boy and the Man. Within it’s pages, it offers a variety of interesting stories, commentary, and asides. One of my favorites is the parable of the learned man in the boat of a fisherman, which I have reprinted here.
‘Don’t you know the rules of syntax?’ the pedant asked.
‘No’ the fisherman answered.
‘Then one-fourth of your life is lost. Do you know algebra?’
‘Then one-half of your life is lost. Do you know geometry?’ But before the fisherman could confess his ignorance of this latter branch of learning, a huge wave upset the boat and cast both him and the professor into the water.
‘Do you know how to swim?’ he shouted to the professor.
‘No,’ the poor man cried.
‘Then the whole of your life is lost.’
This parable does not come from T.R. himself. Instead, it comes from the author and is included in a chapter describing T.R.’s early days of manhood. Morgan presents Roosevelt as inhabiting dual worlds during this time. Being born into old-money, New York family, T.R. was afforded an education few in his day could even dream of. Yet, just before entering Harvard as a freshman in 1876, T.R. also enters the backwoods. In Maine, he “lived like a son in the simple home of the back-woodsman and tramped and camped with Bill Sewall as a chum”
Unlike many other rich, politicians of past and present, T.R. seemed completely at home with people from all walks of life, especially the outdoorsmen, homesteaders, ranchers that he would later work with during his time in the west. This leads Morgan to conclude that, “Roosevelt was learning to value men according what they knew, rather than by what they did not know.”
Morgan expands upon this theme later in a chapter describing the early days of his political career. Roosevelt describes his first political lesson as “if you are cast on a desert island, with only a screw-driver, a hatchet, and a chisel, to make a boat with, go make the best one you can. It would be better if you had a saw, but you haven’t. So with men. There is a point of course where a man must take his stand alone and break with all for a clear principle, but until it comes, he must work with men as they are.”
All of these scenes serve to paint T.R. as have extraordinary knack for engaging with his fellow Americans and give explanation for why he was so popular as a president, both then and now. Though again this portrayal must viewed with some grain of salt because of it’s aggrandizement of it’s subject, Theodore Roosevelt: The Boy and the Man provides an engaging look at uniqueness of 26th president from the era of his presidency. Because of this, it still has value to the scholar and average reader alike.
So, I’m glad to add it to my collection of “forgotten” books.