Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ben Franklin and formative books

I've been reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Ben Franklin and thinking about the descriptions of Franklin's childhood in Puritan Boston, including books he cited as favorites or key influences:

- John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress
"A central theme of Bunyan's book... was contained in its title: progress, the concept that individuals, and humanity in general, move forward and improve based on a steady increase of knowledge and the wisdom that comes from conquering adversity." (Isaacson, pg. 25)

- Plutarch's Lives
"... also based on the premise that individual endeavor can change the course of history for the better." (Isaacson, pg. 25)

- Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good by Cotton Mather
"'If I have been,' Franklin wrote to Cotton Mather's son... 'a useful citizen, the public owes the advantage of it to that book.'" (Isaacson, pg. 26)

It's interesting to consider how these books shaped Franklin (and also what ideas he accepted, and which ones he ultimately disregarded and discarded, such as Calvinism's notion of predestination); remember also that Franklin did not come from a wealthy home - his father was a tallow chandler, and Franklin did not have any sort of extensive schooling - these books were available to him at home, and at age 10 he started apprenticing at an older brother's print shop (an education in and of itself and an experience that influenced the course of his life). A lot of personal initiative then, from an early age. And while his knowledge and intellectual endeavors expanded throughout his life, these books seemed to form the germ of his later thinking and his attitude towards an individual's personal development and civic responsibilities (undertaken out of a sense of personal duty).

I wonder what books are considered foundational by modern young readers. There are different religious texts; and what about secular books? Which books did you find left a lasting impression on you, helped shape your ideas (to whatever extent and for whatever duration), impacted decisions you've made or values you've cultivated and considered important? Did you find these books in your home, on your parents' bookshelves? Were they given to you by a good friend or teacher?

Also, to what extent were the books influential - did you recognize them as being important or life-altering shortly after reading them? Or only years later? (or do you mostly just say they were, as part of the narrative you're constructing of your life and how you got to where you are?)

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