This is the current stopping point for me in a little mini-run of listening to audiobooks read by their comedian authors. in 2016-17, I read Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance, B.J. Novak's One More Thing, Tina Fey's Bossypants and Nick Offerman's Paddle Your Own Canoe. This year, I've done Rainn Wilson's The Bassoon King and most recently Amy Poehler's Yes Please, now wrapping up with Nick Offerman's second book, Gumption.
The book's subtitle, Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America's Gutsiest Troublemakers, sums up very well what we're getting ourselves into with this read. Offerman hand-chooses a list of 21 people, all Americans, who he views as great in some way. He proceeds to write what amounts to a mini-biography of each person's life, delving most deeply into instances or characteristics that support his thesis of what makes this person great. In many cases, for the folks on Offerman's list who are alive, he was able to sit and do an interview with them for this book, and he describes these conversations with relish; throughout the read, it's clear that Offerman took a lot of joy in writing this book.
In most every chapter, Offerman also applies the greatness of the American currently in question to society in a broader sense. For example, in the very first chapter, he discusses at length the predisposition that George Washington had to listen to both sides of an argument extensively before choosing to make up his mind or contribute his own thoughts on the matter. Offerman draws the natural parallel to today's venomous political climate, which includes very little room for discussion or consideration: So many Americans participate actively or passively in what either Offerman or one of his subjects at some point terms "habitation politics" that there's very rarely any research conducted or thought offered before aligning with one side or another based on the red or blue color of your chosen political party.
I loved the term "habitation politics," and it applies to the habitation of religion as well; the power of self-identity is very strong, and aligning one's self with the ideals of the Democratic or Republican party, or the ideals of any religion, informs the way a person views themselves. It's a method of developing a code of conduct, in a way, but with the vast amount of information that is offered to us without our asking for it, the code of conduct can often be formed by other people instead of ourselves -- perhaps by a political party's national committee or perhaps by certain outdated beliefs of certain religions.
Later, I'll highlight some of the Americans that Offerman chose who I was most interested by; during the chapter about Frederick Law Olmsted, he writes that reading one book about one person lead him to another book about another person and so on. In what was probably a very on-purpose manner, Offerman's writing on certain subjects made me downright hungry to read more about their respective life stories, and as such Offerman's book will be a springboard for me as well. I'll highlight the folks I'm most interested in reading more about.
Before that, though, I think it makes sense to identify what I viewed to be the most common, overarching traits between the Americans that Offerman selected. It's not that certain skills make for guaranteed greatness, but it's easy to see the ways in which these Americans were similar. The sample is naturally a victim of selection bias; because Offerman chose this whole list, it makes sense that he would have focused on subjects who express characteristics that he considers virtuous, and he will be biased to highlight and reference those characteristics again and again. Still, I believe these are worthwhile to point out and strive toward:
- Everyone reads a ton. Nearly every subject Offerman interviewed mentions, in one context or another, a voracious appetite for reading. This seems to have been the runaway favorite for spending leisure time amongst these great people. As a side note ... I do think that in the modern age, reading can be substituted quite often with listening to podcasts. The end result is a desire to spend leisure time learning something rather than wasting time; as Offerman's second subject, Benjamin Franklin, put it, it's the difference between leisure and laziness.
- Most everybody loves everybody else. Tolerance is a common characteristic here, and a penchant to advocate for equality and equal opportunity.
- Everyone admits it's okay to "not know." This is a bit vague, because it applies on different planes. A common ideology amongst Offerman's subjects is a willingness to say the words "I don't know." This can apply in a business setting while in a meeting with coworkers. It can also apply on a grander scale, as is, it's okay to not understand all the mysteries of the universe. Even Offerman's subjects who were quite religious acknowledge that their religion isn't the end-all, be-all of their internal selves, and that while religion may be important to them, it isn't okay to push religious beliefs onto other, pressure others into believing in certain ideologies, or use religious beliefs as a backbone for discriminatory practices.
- Everybody does the work. Amy Poehler says this in Yes Please as well -- the doing of the work is the thing. Talking about the work or bragging about the work or procrastinating the work isn't the thing. Doing the work is the thing. All of these people share a common insanity in their work ethic and desire to plow ahead for success.
Each of the people Offerman writes about exhibit these traits in different ways. Early in the book, Offerman writes about how Frederick Douglass taught himself to read and write in a painstaking manner. As a slave, Douglass wasn't permitted to learn how to read, let alone get an education -- yet he wound up becoming a renowned speaker and a leader in the fight to abolish slavery. This is an extreme example of doing the work, as it's work that could very well have gotten him killed.
Later on, Offerman delves into the early life of Eleanor Roosevelt, who pushed for equal rights and the settling of differences via diplomacy rather than war. This is a shining example of loving others. Meanwhile, author Wendell Berry sets forth an ideal of ... I don't know how to put this ... respectful religion? Berry says that by doing anything, by putting anything out into the world, we reveal what we think about the works of God, because anything we create is a derivative of being created. I ... am not sure that I agree with that, specifically, but I think it's a good example of how one can apply religious ideals and beliefs into everyday life without being terrible about it.
Here are the people who Offerman made me most interested in learning more about:
- George Washington. I will probably begin with Ron Chernow's well-regarded Washington: A Life. While you get a bite-sized chunk of Washington's life as part of any grade-school education, I was particularly intrigued by the volume that Washington wrote: Offerman says that he wrote such a great number of letters, the average would work out to five per day from the day he was born to the day he died.
- Benjamin Franklin. Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life seems like a good start, but I also want to read Franklin's own Book of Virtues. Ben seems like a smart guy who was still pretty good about partying.
- Frederick Law Olmsted. I live very near Prospect Park, which is a place I love, and which Olmsted considers to be the best park he ever architected -- and this comes from the same guy who was the architect for Central Park as well. Genius of Place by Justin Martin will be the starting point here.
- Wendell Berry. Not necessarily someone to read about, but someone to read. He's Offerman's favorite author, which is a good enough recommendation to me. I'll start, at Offerman's suggestion, with Fidelity, a collection of five short stories.
- Michael Pollen. Another author whose work about food, our relationship with it, and how/why it's good/bad seems very interesting. The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food both seem like good options.
- George Nakashima. A Japanese-American woodworker who is expert in traditional Japanese woodworking ways. The Soul of A Tree seems like the place to start, but I'm unsure of why it's priced the way it is on Amazon.
- Conan O'Brien. Not sure this guy has gotten his own book deal yet, but I'll read his memoir whenever it happens.
That's all I've got. I'm following this by diving back into my Harry Potter revisitation with The Prisoner of Azkaban. From there, I'm not sure!
Gumption is available as an IRL book and an e-book on Amazon. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.