Wednesday, August 24, 2022

A Tribute to David McCullough

Earlier this month, David McCullough, author and historian, died. 

My first thought was that I'd never again say, "McCullough has a new book out!" At age 89, certainly his death was no surprise, but he had been a prolific author, even in his elderly years.

A few months ago, I had gathered my reading lists from various places, some written in notebooks or the back of planners, others on sheets of notebook paper, and combined them all into one notebook. I found that I had lists of the books I read back to 2007. I also had several book lists that Ed had read from around that 2007 as well. 

Looking through my reading lists brought a flood of memories. Many of the book titles I can remember where I read them and what was happening in my life. Books that we listened to on vacation or I read while feeding a baby. Books that I still think about today.

So when I heard of McCullough's death, I pulled out those reading lists and looked for his name. I began to consider the influence that McCullough's books had on my life. McCullough was a masterful storyteller and a meticulous historican, but it wasn't the content so much as the fact that I chose to read his books that mattered.

I've enjoyed reading from the time that Dick and Jane were my compaions, but in my twenties I struggled with knowing what to read. Was fiction a waste of time? What did a married woman read? What was the purpose of reading? 

I don't have a record of the books I read when I first married, but I know I didn't read a lot. Ed and I enjoyed reading several classics together out loud, which was such fun. But I mostly read nonfiction on topics that I wanted to learn about such as gardening, bread baking, and parenting.

Then I began to read some blogs written by homeschool moms who were voracious readers. They exposed me to many more books. I started going to used book sales, searching for titles they mentioned. 

The first time I remember David McCullough's name mentioned was in a blog post where a busy homeschool mom said she was listening to Mornings on Horseback while she took walks. I told Ed about it, thinking that it would be a book he'd enjoy. He had listened to another book by David McCullough the year before, The Great Bridge. He listened to Morning on Horseback and then started looking for other audio books by McCullough at the library. 

About that time, I read a rave review on McCullough's book, John Adams and picked it up at a used book sale. I don't think I had ever attempted to read a 600-page book. I still wonder what possessed me to start that book. I had three small children, ages 3, 2, and newborn. I would put the children down for a nap, then curl up on my own bed with this huge book. I could only read a few pages at a time, and it took me months to finish. 

Then I immediately started Truman, an even longer book, almost 1,000 pages. Again, it took me months of naptimes to complete it. 

I'm not sure why I chose McCullough's two longest books to read. Ed, meanwhile was working through most his other books and would tell me what he was learning. Between the two of us, we read all of his books that were printed at that time. 

I look back on my decision to read John Adams and see it as the turning point in my reading life. Before that I read for information and occasionally pleasure. But now I was choosing to read a huge book that I didn't need to read. I wasn't a history scholar. I didn't need the information the book contained. It wasn't a fluffy book, but neither was it doctrinal or inspirational or pertinant to my life. I think that is when I changed from being a person who read books to being a reader.  

Maybe there isn't a difference, but I think there is. A reader reads books because they love words, not just to gain information. A reader reads books that aren't necessary for their life, because reading is what they do. In many ways, a reader can't not read books. It isn't a matter of will I read but what will I read. When I'm asked how I find time to read, I'm bewildered because reading is what I do, like eating or showering. It simply fits in my day by default. Sometimes I can only catch brief snatches, like the days I eat on the run. Other days I have time to linger long (over a meal or a book.) But skipping either for too many hours just isn't optional.

I didn't know it when I read them (I barely knew the term), but Truman and John Adams were both Pulitzer prize-winning books, in 1993 and 2002 respectively. Both took years of research. I enjoyed this old NYT article about McCullough that shares about his writing process including the fact that he typed his books on a typewriter. He also stated that he read each page aloud to his wife and she read it back to him, so his ear could catch what his eyes couldn't. His attention to detail is probably why one NYT critic said that McCullough was "incapable of writing a page of bad prose." 

David McCullough was born in western Pennsylvania and was a magazine writer for years before he wrote his first book, The Johnstown Flood, about an event near where he had grown up. After the success of that book, he became a full-time writer of books on American history. 

I'm going to list each of his books and share a bit about each. I'm not saying you should read them or want to read them, there are so many books in the world to choose, but if you read even one of McCullough's books, I'm guessing you will know far more than you did in your highschool American history class.

I'll include the Amazon affiliate links, but these books are easy to find at used books stores.

The Johnstown Flood (1968)

This is one of McCullough's shortest books and a great introduction to his work. Ed and I enjoyed reading this book with our book club and a few years ago, we listened to it as a family while on a trip. McCullough actually interviewed some people who had experienced the Johnstown Flood.

The Great Bridge (1972)

Ed told me so many fascnating stories from this account of building the Brooklyn Bridge while reading this book. 

The Path Between the Seas (1977)

This book takes place mostly off American soil, in Panama. I remember Ed being appalled at the lost of lives in the building of the canal.

Mornings on Horseback (1981)

This book shares the early years of Theodore Roosevelt, both as a child and then a young man, and the hardships he overcame.

Brave Companions (1991)

Brave Companions is a compilation of essays and speeches. If you want to dabble a toe into McCullough's writings, this would be a good choice.

Truman (1992)

Many consider this McCullough's masterpiece. This detailed biography on President Truman taught me so much about the early 1900s, including the Great Depression, the close of World War 2, and the Cold War. 

John Adams (2001)

Through the life of John Adams, McCullough describes the founding of the United States. I learned much about the birth of the Constitution.

1776 (2005)

When Ed read this book, covering only one year, he was amazed at how McCullough captured the drama of this time. Those living in 1776, on both sides of the Atlantic, didn't know if the Americans would win their independence.

The Greater Journey (2011)

I had not read a McCullough book for years but picked this one up this spring. Like usual for his books, it took me months to read it. McCullough follows Americans who traveled to Paris in the 1800s. This included medical students, artists, inventors, and ambassadors. Some have critized this book for not having a strong narrative theme through the book and I did find the large number of people it followed to feel rather random, but I enjoyed it.

The Wright Brothers (2015)

We listened to this book on a family trip. I thought I knew a lot about the Wright brothers, but this book didn't just talk about their famous invention of a flying machine, but followed them to Europe and covered their later years.

The American Spirit (2017)

McCullough was often asked to speak and this is a compilation of speeches that I have not yet read.

The Pioneers (2019)

I have not yet read McCullough's latest book which describes the settling of the Northwest territory after the Revolutionary War. If you are from Ohio, this is the story of the pioneers who carved homes in wilderness of this area.

There is a quote that says, "Five years from today, you will be the same person that you are today, except for the books you read and the people you meet." (credited to Charlie Jones) I'm not sure that is entirely accurate, as many life circumstances affect our lives, but the fact remains that books can be influential. I've enjoyed looking back and considering the influence that an American historian and author had on an exhausted young mom.


  1. Thank you for writing this! When I heard David McCullough died, I right away thought of Ed, because I remembered you writing about how much he enjoyed this author. I enjoy history and thought I'd like to read one of McCullough's books to try it out, but didn't know where to start. This review of his books will be helpful!
    - Mary Beth M.

  2. Almost thou persuadest me to read McCollough--but did he mostly only write about famous Americans?

    1. Sorry, Marlene. You should have requested a book on a Canadian. :) A number of the books feature the French quite heavily. Not only The Greater Journey, but also John Adams and the Wright brothers spent time in France and the French were involved in the building of the Panama Canal.

  3. "A reader can't not read books." You summed me up perfectly! Thank you for putting this in words. I've heard a lot about David McCollough, but haven't read any of his books yet. I know some are on Scribd; I should bookmark them.

  4. This is such a well written post! I have read three or four of his books and will now add the rest to my reading list. Thanks!

  5. We have one book. The Wright Brothers, our friend gave it to us because of my husband's interest in airplanes. I did not know there were so many. Now I had to pick up the book and start reading.

  6. I enjoyed this post, Gina. I read about McCullough’s books on other blogs too. I have a 10 year old boy who is a voracious readers and grabs any book he sees about the Civil War or other historical events. How far over his head would these books be?

    1. If he enjoys history, I think he might like these. I'd start with either The Johnstown Flood or The Wright Brothers as they are the most assesible, imo.

    2. Thank you, Gina, for that helpful answer. I was considering getting The Johnstown Flood for my almost 12 year old daughter. She loves reading books about people going through and surviving natural disasters. I would like to read the book about the Wright brothers myself.

    3. And thank you from the first anonymous with the 10 yo boy. I borrowed 1776 and The Greater Journey from our library, but now I think I’ll look for the two you recommend, and see how my family enjoys them. I really appreciate your book reviews and author recommendations, Gina.

  7. This is a great piece! I hope some of the man's family gets to read this. It wouldn't surprise me if it was one they kept and re-read. I'd not heard of him before.


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