Selected and annotated by the author of the acclaimed Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, this collection of Franklin's writings shows why he was the bestselling author of his day and remains America's favorite Founder and wit.
As a twelve-year-old apprentice in his brother's print shop, Benjamin Franklin taught himself to be a writer by taking notes on the works of great essayists such as Addison and Steele, jumbling them up, and then trying to recreate them in his own words. By that method, he recalled in his Autobiography, he was encouraged to think he might become a "tolerable" writer. In fact, he became the best, most popular, and most influential writer in colonial America. His direct and practical prose shaped America's democratic character, and his homespun humor gave birth to the nation's unique brand of crackerbarrel wisdom.
This book collects dozens of Franklin's delight-ful essays and letters, along with a complete version of his Autobiography. It includes an introductory essay exploring Franklin's life and impact as a writer, and each piece is accompanied by a preface and notes that provide background, context, and analysis. Through the writings and the introductory essays, the reader can trace the development of Franklin's thinking, along with the birth of the nation he and his pen helped to invent.
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Simon & Schuster
May 30, 2005
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Excerpt from A Benjamin Franklin Reader by Walter Isaacson
When he was a young teenager working as an apprentice at his brother's printing shop in Boston, Benjamin Franklin, America's original apostle of self improvement, devised a wonderful little method to teach himself how to be a powerful and persuasive writer. He would read the essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in The Spectator, the irreverent London daily that flourished in 1711-12, take notes, jumble them up, set them aside, and then return to them a few days later to see how well he could replicate the original. Sometimes he would even turn the notes into poetry, which helped him expand his vocabulary by forcing him to search for words with the right rhythm or rhyme, before trying to recreate what Addison and Steele had written.
When he found his own version wanting, he would correct it. "But I sometimes had the pleasure," he recalled, "of fancying that in certain particulars of small import I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think that I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious."
More than making himself merely "tolerable," he became the most popular writer in colonial America. He may also have been, as the great literary historian Carl Van Doren has flatly declared, "the best writer in America" during his lifetime. (The closest rival for that title would probably be the preacher Jonathan Edwards, author of such vivid sermons as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," who was certainly more intense and literary, though far less felicitous and amusing.) Franklin's self-taught style, as befitting a prot ' g ' of Addison and Steele, featured a direct and conversational prose, which was lacking in poetic flourish but was powerful in its directness and humor.
Franklin's father had originally intended to send the last of his sons to Harvard to study for the ministry, but observing his cheeky impertinence, especially about matters of religion, he decided that it would be a waste of money. Instead, he decided to apprentice the young boy at age 12 to his older brother James, who had learned the print trade in London and returned to Boston to open up shop and start the first feisty and independent newspaper in the colonies.
The print trade was a natural calling for young Franklin. "From a child I was fond of reading," he recalled, "and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books." Indeed, books were the most important formative influence in his life, and he was lucky to grow up in Boston where libraries had been carefully nurtured since the Arabella brought fifty volumes along with the town's first settlers in 1630.
Franklin was able to sneak books from the other apprentices who worked for booksellers, as long as he returned the volumes clean. "Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be missed or wanted."