Whenever I read autobiographies I’m always struck by the prodigious feats of memory. I find it amazing that their authors can recall with such vividness events that happened decades earlier.
I can barely recreate on this day, four years ago, precisely what I was doing. I think I was working two jobs. Morning at one. Afternoon and evening at the other. I think.
Authors of biographies have a slight advantage because they don’t rely on the memory of their subject alone (at all if they’re dead). They have to scour many sources, talk to a tonne of people and synthesise what they find.
When I flip to the bibliographies and source lists of Robert Caro’s books on Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, or Edmund Morris’ biography of Theodore Roosevelt, or Ron Chernow’s monumental work on John D. Rockefeller, which I’m currently reading, the depth and rigour of the research they conducted is astounding.
“This book is a study of life, not of still life. An exercise in human psychology, not upholstery. To place the position and trace the action of battalions and batteries is only of value to the collector of antiques, and still more to the dealer in faked antiques. Those who believe that exactness is possible can never have known war, or must have forgotten it.”
It brings to mind what Ryan Holiday advises in his article, “Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your Level.” He says:
“The work is an expression of the message, not the message itself. So forget everything but that message and how to apply it to your life. Dates, names, pronunciations–they only matter in how they provide context for the lesson at hand. They carry little value otherwise.”
Applied to what we read and how we learn, the lesson is, ignore the small in favour of the big. Forget the minutiae and remember the message.