February is the month of presidents’ birthdays — two of our greatest, Washington and Lincoln. I remember a cartoon in Esquire many years ago, Lincoln and Washington in a room, Lincoln saying, “George, is February 12 your birthday or mine?” It was funny because the question was real for many people — which was whose and whose was when. This amusing uncertainty was eliminated by creating Presidents’ Day, a cop-out if ever there was one.
Washington/Lincoln: Lincoln/Washington — the endless comparisons are inevitable. There always seemed to be many more books about Lincoln, but important facts aside, Abe clearly wins the face-on-the-money contest, $5.01 to George’s $1.25. George, though, had a state named after him, plus the site of the government’s capitol and a great big bridge, while Abe had to settle for a tunnel, a city in Nebraska and a very pricey car.
The level of advice they received varied widely. Thomas Jefferson to Washington: “Delay is preferable to error”; 12-year-old Grace Bedell to Lincoln, on growing a beard: “You would look a great deal better, for your face is so thin.”
Regarding books, ‘Team of Rivals,’ Doris Kearns Goodman’s examination of the oppositional cabinet that Lincoln dared to put together, is an excellent study of Lincoln, and I just finished ‘Washington’s Crossing’ (David Hackett Fisher). I learned more about Washington and the Revolution than I ever learned in grammar school (which focused mostly on wooden false teeth, the chopped-down cherry tree that he admitted to, and the freezing cold at Valley Forge). This is a heart-thumping book, and if it looks too long, it’s not. If you exclude the copious appendices and the pages of maps and illustrations, you wind up with around 320 pages of inspirational, eye-opening material.
I don’t want to ignore the ever-romantic St. Valentine’s Day. Every couple has an “our song,” and my wife and I, back in the ’50s, decided on Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand” — it was summer and we spent endless hours talking on the beach. Years passed and if the song happened to play on the radio we’d poke each other and grin. Then one time we really “listened” to the words and realized that the bridge went, “You made a vow that you would ever be true, but somehow that vow meant nothing to you.” Now Boone’s heart is aching as the waves are breaking over the sandy love letters, etc., etc. In the 1950s, love, apparently, was not only blind, but somewhat deaf, too. But we’re working away on year 58.
As an old year ends I like to decide which was the best book I’d read. There were three I considered: ‘Someone,’ Alice McDermott’s touching story of an ordinary young Irish woman in Brooklyn; ‘A God in Ruins,’ Kate Atkinson’s follow-up to “Life After Death”; and, my final choice, ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ (Anthony Doerr), about a young blind girl in World War II France and a boyish German soldier disenchanted with his army’s cruelty. This is a beautifully written story of the faith, hope and charity that exists within us all.
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].