"We Are What We Read": 4 Lessons from David McCullough

Article excerpt

David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author - most recently - of "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris," imparted words of wisdom to a sold-out crowd at Boston's Symphony Hall last week. Here are four pieces of advice from McCullough.

David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author - most recently - of "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris," imparted words of wisdom to a sold-out crowd at Boston's Symphony Hall last week. Here are four pieces of advice from McCullough.

#4 "Understand the past."

"Nothing of consequence is ever accomplished alone. America is a joint effort," insisted the author of "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris," "1776," "John Adams," and seven other books. "There's no such thing as a self-made man or self-made woman."

Parents, teachers, friends, enemies, and even people we never knew affect our everyday lives, successes, and failures. The writers of the books we read particularly influence us. McCullough pointed out how truisms promulgated by Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes some 400 years ago inhabit our everyday language today.

"We are what we read," McCullough said. "We get our ideas from what we read. So it's extremely important when we try to understand the past, and the characters of the past, to not only read what they wrote, but to read what they read."

#3 "Keep a diary."

"Nobody writes letters anymore, and very few people keep diaries," lamented McCullough, though then he joked, "And people in the public life wouldn't dare keep dairies. They'd be subpoenaed."

The historian used the personal hand-written artifacts of Charles Sumner, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Roosevelt, and countless others to research his books. Perhaps he's just old-fashioned - McCullough still uses a manual typewriter to pen his books - but a lot of his work really doesn't involve technology such as the Internet, he said. …