Everyone has a book that means more to them than most others. Sometimes it's a book that means so much that you own several copies of it. Others would look at you and wonder what's wrong. But those who know...well, they know. And they've probably done the same thing.
In my case, it all began one afternoon in the autumn of 1988. Our church had been given a collection of books from the estate of one of my mother's uncles. Only these weren't books on religion. No, Uncle Ralph was a voracious reader, with a particular interest in current affairs. More than once my mother has told me it's a shame I never knew Uncle Ralph, for we were both bookworms with wide-ranging interests in the world, and we would probably have gotten along famously.
And so that's how it happened our church suddenly had to buy several bookcases for this wonderful collection of the books that made Uncle Ralph contented. There were annual volumes on science and technology. There were biographies of famous Americans and books about world events. The hymnals and back issues of The Upper Room now had to share space with volumes by Drew Pearson and Bill Buckley.
And there were two books about a murder in Dallas.
One of the two was the single-volume Associated Press edition of the Warren Commission's report. I was very familiar with it, since it seemed every school I'd attended had a copy of it in the reference section. That one, I knew well.
The other one was clad in a worn, dark blue jacket, flecked with white dots like the night sky. It was by a man named William Manchester, whose picture peered from the back cover. It was titled The Death of a President: November 1963.
At first I didn't know what to make of this book. It was so big, so wordy. And it didn't have pictures like the Warren Report volume did. Where's the good stuff? My teenage brain couldn't quite figure it out. But I figured, hey, why not borrow them both? The 25th anniversary of the event had just passed, and watching A&E's rebroadcast of the day's NBC News coverage had rekindled my interest. And so one afternoon I checked the two of them out.
I don't recall how long it took for me to finally get into reading Manchester's whole volume. If the way I read is any indication, I probably hopscotched around, reading individual scenes that interested me, and then finally decided to just start at the beginning as I should have anyway. By then, though, I'd become fascinated with the depth of detail and all the interesting people Manchester had brought to life in his narrative. There were words I'd never come across, words that built my vocabulary, woven into the story in Manchester's unique style. There were quotations from Housman and T.S. Eliot that led me to discover their works and love them, too.
But the most compelling thing about this book - indeed, what made me dive right in - is the detail. Seldom have I read a book so effective at making you feel you are right there, in that moment. Even though I wasn't there, my mind could take Manchester's words and create the scene. You're there, for instance, seeing every detail of the festive last evening in the White House, the majesty of the judicial gala, dancing in the very room that would be draped in black and bearing a sad burden only a few days later. The stunning frozen-in-amber moment nine minutes before the shots rang out, depicting in a hundred little woven-together snapshots what so many participants in the events to come were doing in those last moments of normalcy. The moment of horror itself, told with horrifying vividness, yet without the tawdriness of other accounts. Later, you feel the sweaty atmosphere as a huddled assemblage, crammed into a cabin compartment aboard Aircraft 26000, watches a federal judge administer the oath of office to a solemn Lyndon Johnson. And a hundred, if not hundreds, of other little scenes throughout those five days, all there for posterity. By the time you finish the book, surveying those two containers of clothes in an attic near Washington, you feel you've lived it all, and you're emotionally spent.
I'm well familiar with the battle behind the book, the fight that was waged with the family over publication and serialization. I'm familiar with the toll it took on Manchester and his family - and that, as his son eloquently wrote, he was just a man. And there are those who say Manchester's prose is overwrought, purple, worshipful. It's very much a product of its day. There are places that criticism's valid. You never have any doubts where his sympathies lie. And yet, even with all its flaws, it's a book that keeps bringing me back because it's so dense, so packed with detail, so evocative, so good at immersing you in a bygone moment, so effective at bringing those moments alive from half a century's passage.
I'd loved history and the historian's craft most of my life. But it was the discovery of that book that made a difference. In that first real reading I gave it, I marveled at what Manchester had done. And I decided I'd like to write books like that someday, books of such detail that they made you feel you were in that bygone moment.
And in a very real sense, it's that book and Bill Manchester - and Uncle Ralph leaving a collection of books to our church - that set me on the course that led to where I am now, as someone who gets to make a living with history.
I finally returned Uncle Ralph's copy of the church when I found a trade paper 25th-anniversary edition at a college bookstore the next year. That poor copy has been read and re-read many times since. I've lost count. Its spine is wrinkled (thanks in part to an ill-advised loan to a high school classmate); the edges of its cover are frayed. But if that's the sign that a book is beloved, then there you are.
A few years ago, I bought a set of bookends. One of the books they were supporting was a worn hardcover first edition of The Death of a President. I couldn't bear to separate them, and the book was only a few dollars, so I added it to my collection too. A couple years after that, I found a very nice hardcover with an excellent dust jacket at a used book store, and the price was right, so I bought it too.
But the copy that's most meaningful - aside from the well-worn paperback version - lives in a very secure place. A couple years back I found a near-mint edition for sale. On the title page, it's signed by William Manchester. It cost a little bit, but for me, personally, you can't put a value on it. It closed a circle: the book that changed my life's trajectory, signed by the man who made me want to be a professional historian.
So I now have four copies of this book. Maybe that's kind of weird. But for anybody who's ever had a book really mean something to them...well, they understand. For me, as somber a volume as it is, The Death of a President means something to me that few other books do; it changed my life, and I've never stopped being grateful I found it. Thanks, Mr. Manchester. And thanks, Uncle Ralph.
(Note: It's now back in print, in an anniversary edition. Well worth picking up.)