Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Surprisingly Droll Memoirs, The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin Is A Mundane Businessman’s Journal!

The Good: Generally well-written, Moments of engaging storytelling
The Bad: Largely uninspired and uninspiring, Ends before the personal narrative becomes relevant/juicy, Bogged down in dull details, Lack of compelling voice
The Basics: The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin explores the growth of an English colonist into a successful businessman.

This year, I am reading more. I am doing my best to balance my pulp with my literature as I go through my personal library at home and that means reading a lot of new-to-me volumes that have been sitting on the shelf for years. For example, I have had The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin on my shelf since college, when I got a copy from a book giveaway the college did each year. It was never required for any class I was in, so my sitting down to read it was all about attempting to enjoy myself and learn something about one of the nation’s forefathers.

Sadly, wrestling through the 197 pages of the actual autobiography quickly turned into a gutwrenching chore and it became very difficult for me to summon the will to actually finish reading the small volume. It also left me with remarkably little to write about the book when I was done.

The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin is the story – told mostly in the form of a long rambling letter that was begun in 1771 and was resumed in 1784 and 1788 – of Benjamin Frankin in his own words. Written as a letter, Benjamin Franklin recounts his life in a winding story that includes coworkers, masters, and employees with whom Franklin did business over the course of fifty years. The story follows how Franklin, as a young protégé, became engaged in working a press, then went into business to start his own newspaper and then used that newspaper in the earliest acts of resistance against the British Empire.

Herein are the two main faults with The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin: 1. It is so focused on the life of Benjamin Franklin as a businessman that he does not explore much in the way of philosophy and thought and nothing even bordering on emotional attachment to those who are near him, and 2. It ends rather abruptly – Franklin is in the middle of recounting events from 1757 when the narrative ends – long before it gets to any of the interesting things that one might actually wish to learn about one of the key forefathers of the United States Of America. This would be like a presidential memoir including the story of the president’s life up to the decision to run for an elected office (but not the results of said contest, any subsequent political life, nor their actual presidency).

The result is that The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin is boring. There is the implication that Franklin spent decent money on prostitutes, but other than that there is nothing eye-opening or even intriguing within the pages. In fact, Franklin spends much of the early book discussing establishing his businesses, with great detail paid to the politics of the time . . . for who else had presses, how they maintained them, and what the effects of competing against them might be. There is a lot of namedropping, but many of the names are historically irrelevant.

Throughout The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin, I kept looking for examples of wit, stories that were rich in voice, and anecdotes that spoke to higher ideals. Instead, the closest Franklin provides is a lesson on debate and antiquated notions of the printing business. The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin leaves the reader desperate to read something interesting about Franklin written by anyone but Benjamin Franklin; the hyperbole of not wanting to toot his own horn makes his own autobiography virtually unreadable.

For other memoirs or biographies, please visit my reviews of:
Keeping Faith – Jimmy Carter
The Muse Is Always Half-Dressed In New Orleans – Andrei Codrescu
When You Are Engulfed In Flames – David Sedaris


For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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