Friday, June 2, 2006

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin played a prominent role in the early development and establishment of the United States of America, and is renowned for being a shrewd politician, witty writer, inquisitive scientist, and ingenious inventor. Most of us know about Franklin from the schoolbooks we read as children, but never really study his contributions to the country outside of that setting. For anyone who wants to learn more about one of the most extraordinary men of the past few centuries, I suggest checking out Franklin's Autobiography.

Many of today's politicians pen autobiographies, and in fact, it's becoming something of a tradition that former presidents publish theirs within a few years of leaving the White House. But back in Franklin's time, the practice wasn't as widespread. As a result, readers of his Autobiography aren't getting the highly edited, polished, and ghostwritten pieces that we see on the shelves today. If you're expecting Franklin's book to be a chronological retelling of his life from birth to old age, then you'll be sorely disappointed in this work.

Indeed, Franklin didn't even write his Autobiography with the intent that it would be published. He was actually writing it for the benefit of his son William, and wanted the book to serve as something of a guideline or advice manual for William to refer to throughout his own life. As a result, the reader is privy to Franklin's pure, unadulterated thoughts and musings. The look back on his life as a young adult is both frank and heartwarming, and sheds greater insight into Franklin's personality than any history book ever could do.

Franklin opens the book by explaining to William that he, Benjamin, has always enjoyed reading about his own ancestors, and hopes that William can someday derive the same pleasure from reading Franklin's words. He then talks a bit about his father, mother, and siblings (Franklin was the 15th out of a total of 17 children), as well as a few episodes from his childhood that reveal the beginnings of his studious personality. As a modern reader, and someone who is not particularly interested in history or genealogy, I found this part of the Autobiography to be fairly slow going. I had trouble making it through these chapters and actually but the book aside for a number of weeks until I convinced myself to continue slogging through. I would advise you to do the same, because the payoff really is worth it.

As with most people who go on to do great things with their lives, there were several important incidents in Franklin's childhood that would serve to shape his future actions. For instance, Franklin was apprenticed to a printer's shop at the age of 12. This not only gave him a chance to acquire a respectable skill that would help him earn a living later in life, but also gave him the opportunity to read pamphlets, newspapers, and other items that might not otherwise have fallen into his hands. Some of the things he read, including The Spectator, would even give him a writing style to try to emulate.

The printing business (as well as writing) would of course play a major role throughout Franklin's entire life. The Autobiography tells us how and why Franklin started printing pamphlets on his own, and how these activities eventually get him noticed by some very important people.

In addition to telling William about his working life during these early years of adulthood, Franklin also delves into a lot of personal items. For example, we find out that Franklin was something of a troublemaker in his youth, and liked to spend his money on food, drink, and women whenever he had the chance.

But we also see another side of Franklin, one that yearns for self-improvement. In the pages of the Autobiography, readers can clearly see that Franklin constantly strives to be a better person. Towards that end, he was always trying various experiments, such as getting up at a certain time in the morning, having a set schedule that he tried to follow religiously, and consciously trying to perform virtuous deeds every single day. He also tried to eat only one meal per day in an effort to free up some extra time for other things, but soon gave that up as impracticable.

It's important to note that Franklin's Autobiography doesn't say anything about his role in the American Revolution or in the establishment of the United States as a new nation independent of British rule. These are arguably the most critical times of Franklin's life, yet they aren't given any coverage in the book. But just remember that Franklin never intended his Autobiography to be as comprehensive as those we are used to seeing now, and he never expected the book to be printed for mass distribution. It should also be pointed out that Franklin kept copious notes and journals about those events, but just never had the time (nor, perhaps, the inclination) to add those to his Autobiography.

Overall, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a fascinating look into the private life of one of America's earliest public figures. Although I found both the beginning and end of the book to be a bit boring and uninteresting, the work taken as a whole is certainly worth reading. It's a very short book as far as autobiographies go, especially when you consider how much Franklin did during his lifetime. It won't take a very big time commitment to make it through the book, so read it today!

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