Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lincoln: A Photobiography - 1988

I’ve always had a soft spot for Abraham Lincoln. Like my dad, I was born in Illinois (my mom and my four other siblings are all native Houstonians). In fact, my paternal great-great grandfather, Fred Dienes (1828-1896), owned a hat store in Springfield, Illinois and supposedly sold a hat to Lincoln. Maybe his store is somewhere in this photograph (also found in black and white in the book on page 29):

About 40 years ago, I wrote an essay on Lincoln and won a trip to Washington, DC, for the inauguration. And now I live in Granbury, where John Wilkes Booth (who allegedly was not killed after the assassination of Lincoln) lived as John St. Helen. Supposedly his ghost haunts the Opera House on the downtown square (just a half mile from my house), and the gun used in the assassination was found just two blocks from my home.

So I was excited to see that Russell Freedman’s 1988 Newbery winner, Lincoln: A Photobiography was now available as an audiobook (no doubt due to the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial). The second disc includes an interview with the author and is enhanced with a Flash slideshow of a few (but nowhere near all) of the archival photographs from the book. Broadway and movie actor Robert Petkoff narrates the book, providing variation in voices for the numerous quotations (by and about Lincoln) used throughout it.

This audiobook was fascinating. Freedman chose details (and quotes) that would be of interest to both children and adults, and wove them into a cohesive narrative. I thought I knew a lot about Lincoln (thanks to all that essay contest research years ago), but I learned a lot from this book.

Despite my fondness for audiobooks, this is one that definitely should be paired with the book. The Flash slide show only includes a few photos from the book, probably because permission could not be obtained from the various sources (listed on page 145 of the book) to use all of them in the Flash format. There are a couple of great series of photos of Lincoln, one set (pages 64-65)showing the progression of his beard growth in 1860-61, and another set (pages 116-117) showing how the strain of the Civil War aged him. The print book also includes appendices on Lincoln memorials/monuments/museums and books about Lincoln, and an index. I could definitely see a struggling reader using the audiobook along with the print version.

On the other hand, the interview with Freedman on the audiobook is valuable, with some great quotes of its own: his advice to "...make use of the library and the precious help of the librarian, and not to trust everything you see on the Internet,” and “Biography lends itself to the art of narrative…to the fascinating spectacle of character meeting circumstance and either changing events or being changed by them—or both, as happened to Lincoln.”

Referring to the research he did for this book, which included travel to many sites relevant to Lincoln, Freedman also said, “Everything you see with your own eyes adds to your understanding of the life and times you are writing about.” He also said, “I wish I’d been able to include more in my book about Lincoln as a writer...He wrote every word of every speech himself, and yet writing did not come easily to him...he re-wrote, revised, and polished...He was a writer I admire greatly.”

Speaking of writing, one of Sandy D’s favorite Lincoln quotes about writing “enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space” (p. 135) is also my favorite.   I discovered this quote has an interesting history, being part of a much longer lecture on “Discoveries and Inventions” that Lincoln delivered in a number of Illinois towns. Probably the best thing about Lincoln: A Photobiography is that it took me days to write this review, because I kept exploring little tidbits in it like the photograph of 1858 Springfield (part of a postcard series) and quotes like the one on writing (which led to learning Lincoln actually had an invention patented). A book that can inspire that kind of curiosity is rare. I wish this book had been available when I wrote my essay all those years ago!

[This post also appears on Bookin' It]


Mike Kienzler said...

Amanda: Fred Dienes' hat store almost surely isn't in that photo. The Springfield history excerpt you linked to indicates the store was on Sixth Street. However, the postcard photo says it shows the west side of the square (and I believe that's correct as well, from what I know of Spfld history). That means the photo is of Fifth Street. And, depending on where the post office was at the time John Carroll's history was written, Dienes' hat store also was probably another block or two south of the photo location.

I've got a blog about Abe (The Abraham Lincoln Observer), and I think I'll do a post about why anyone would produce an audiobook about a photobiography (thanks for the idea). If I can turn up more about Dienes' hat store in the process, I'll let you know.

Amanda (the librarian) said...

Mike, you are right of course about the photo - I used this particular one because the uncolorized version was in Freedman's book. I'll be e-mailing you privately about some guesses on where the hat store might have been.

As for why anyone would produce an audiobook about a photobiography: in this case, of course, I think a lot of it is to take advantage of the new attention this 1988 Newbery winner is receiving due to the Lincoln Bicentennial. But, I can also tell you from my experience as a librarian and an educator, audiobooks can be great for the struggling reader. I can also see parents using the audiobook on a car trip. In both cases, it would be used in conjunction with the book.

Sandy D. said...

Oh, wouldn't it be great to use this audiobook on a family vacation in IL/IN/KY?

A really entertaining followup to this book for me was Andrew Ferguson's Land of Lincoln. Someday my kids will experience what Ferguson's kids did. I'll bet they'll be just as thrilled. ;-)