I am a slow summertime reader. I also subscribe to the New Yorker (which requires a huge weekly reading investment) and prefer to spend my summer nights riding my bike along the banks of the Delaware River rather than sitting at home reading. I do also travel a fair bit though, and quite often, my travels are lengthened by summertime storms, airline delays, etc. It was under these circumstances that I endured an overnight flight from Philadelphia to Paris, France. I missed my connection to Bristol, England and got stuck in the Charles De Gaulle airport for about fourteen hours more before taking an alternate flight to Bristol via Amsterdam.
Amid Parisian airport depression, I reached in my backpack and pulled out Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. The book psychologically profiles the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, detailing the many bouts with depression that Lincoln endured throughout his life, from his early days, through a life of lawyering and into his final years as a politician, policy maker and ethical philosopher. None of which came easy as a result of Lincoln’s chronically unsettling bouts with severe depression and bipolar tendencies.
I’m not a scholar of Lincoln’s life. I know a little, not a lot. But I am consistently taken in by the lives of people plagued by depression, the various ways it can manifest in people’s lives and the resulting battles. Lincoln’s life could’ve been easy. Money wasn’t an issue, women wanted him and he possessed a gift of gab that was uncommon for his day. But Lincoln’s life wasn’t easy. He constantly battled familial deaths, harsh winters and irrefutable truths about the treacheries of man. But somehow, prior to the detailed teachings of clinical psychology, Lincoln reached within and pressed on. In the process, he helped to bring about the end of slavery, inspired the resurgence of a peaceful nation and never backed down from a fight, even when it was the last thing his psyche wanted to do.
As one might expect, the life of a lawyer in 19th century Illinois can sometimes drag, as does the book, but the overall internal battles between Lincoln and depression help to carry the book through the lesser known periods of Lincoln’s life. Or, as I quickly found out, being stuck in France, not knowing the language, and only having one book in my possession, it can make any book one hell of a read.