“History matters. That’s what I’ve tried to convey. It’s essential to understand our nation’s story, the good and the bad, the high accomplishments and the skulduggery.”
“If Americans were at a loss to understand their history, they could count on David McCullough. His voice–not imperious, yet not exactly soothing, either–comes on, and we become more calm.”
I had the good fortune, during my time in the book business, to meet lots of interesting people. It helped that Brentano’s was at the base of the Marriott Rivercenter escalator; but, it was important to me for celebrities to be able to visit our store and NOT have to sign autographs. Our gang, for the most part, agreed, and abided.
But business was business. So, when I had the chance to get an author to sign copies of their books, I knew from experience there was lots of $ in those autographs. (Does it need to be noted that not all books are bought to be read? A Brief History of Time alone proves that lots of them are bought, then abandoned after eight pages, kept on the shelf as if to certify one’s membership in the intelladiesandgentsia.*)
*intelladiesandgentsia Mixed gender group of smart people.
Mr. McCullough came in one afternoon, and, charmingly, seemed surprised to be recognized. I told him my theory about the Ken Burns Civil War series, which he narrated; we sold hundreds of copies of the companion book, and it was my opinion that it was because the series helped people to feel the history enough to want to learn it. I also got him to sign the ten or twelve copies of his books that we had in the store, which at the time included these:
After we got the books signed, and after graciously chatting with several customers who recognized him (fellow PBS geeks I guess) I asked what he was working on next. Over the next few years, I thought of that conversation a lot, since the project he was working on turned out to be one of the biggest sellers of the last decade of the millennium. The project, of course, was this here:
The most interesting thing Mr. McCullough said, though, when I asked about it, and I’ll get as close as my recollector, in its current state, will allow: “I’m working on a book about John Adams. And when you work on a book about John Adams, you very quickly realize that it HAS to be a book also about Abigail Adams.”
I thought of that most recently when David McCullough died, on 7 August, two months after Rosalee, his wife of 62 years. A life like that is to be celebrated, although I wish he could have stayed around until we could get a better grip on the uniquely American skulduggery that has been unleashed and empowered, and that we will have to stop without him.