Culture > Books

Books: Private lives, public acts

Books | Biographies look to the private to analyze public achievement

Issue: "Castro’s license to kill?," Aug. 3, 1996

According to the inimitable Samuel Johnson, "Almost all the miseries of life, almost all the wickedness that infects society, and almost all the distresses that afflict mankind, are the consequences of some defect in private duties. Likewise, all the joys of this world may be attributable to the happiness of hearth and home." If that is true, then biographical studies are among the most fruitful we can undertake. These books seem to prove that once popular notion afresh-making clear the connection between a man's private character and his public accomplishments.

Blaise Pascal was a brilliant 17th--century mathematician and scientist. He was also one of the most prominent apologists for the Christian faith during the tumultuous upheaval of the early Enlightenment. In A Piece of the Mountain, Joyce McPherson retells his inspiring story. Her simple brisk style and vivid precise prose make this an ideal book for young readers; according to the publisher, she has written it at a fifth-or sixth-grade level. But her keen insights into the home life, personal relationships, correspondence, and intellectual struggles of the great man make this a fascinating feast of ideas for adults as well.

The Powered Hand is an entirely different kind of biography, but no less affecting. In it Otto Scott recounts the exploits of Duncan Black and Alanzo Decker and the mechanical manufacturing company they created: Black and Decker. While all too many business books are as dull as an annual stock report, this one literally moves along at the pace of a novel.

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The biblical character traits so essential to lasting success-from the primacy of a tireless work ethic and unstinting honesty to entrepreneurial innovation and interpersonal integrity-are evident at every stage of these two remarkable lives and on every page of this, their equally remarkable story. I've never read a more insightful or motivational business book. This is the art of biography at its very best.

Alfred the Great tells the remarkable story of courage, intelligence, and faith played out on the battlefields, in the castles, and in the churches of 9th-century England. At the age of 16, Alfred had greatness thrust upon him when his brother, Ethelred-who led the little kingdom of Wessex-turned to him for help against the ravages of the Vikings. Six years later, in 893, he became king himself.

Learning the art of government from Charlemagne and his heirs, the art of war from the Nordic invaders, and the art of theology from the Canterbury Augustinians, he somehow organized the scattered Saxons and Angles against the Danes and ultimately laid the foundations of a united England. P.H. Helm's classic biography, thankfully reprinted in this handsome hardback edition, is notable for its emphasis on Alfred's character as opposed to his politics. And in this day of smothering ideological self--importance, that makes for compelling and refreshing reading.

Generally, we moderns hold to a strangely disjunctive view of the relationship between life and work-thus enabling us to nonchalantly separate a person's private character from his public accomplishments.

But this novel divorce of root from fruit, however genteel, is a ribald denial of one of the most basic truths in life: What you are begets what you do. Heroes don't simply emerge out of nothing; heroes are forged upon the anvil of ethical faithfulness. These three books drive home that lesson with both verve and grace.


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