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09.02.11

Lincoln and Darwin: “Two Centuries of Genius”

A significant coincidence occurred on February 12 two hundred years ago.  Two children were born, one poor in a long-forgotten log cabin Hardin County, Kentucky, and one wealthy in a still-standing estate in Shrewsbury, England, who would become perhaps the best-known men of the new century. Those two were, of course, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, statesman and scientist, emancipator and evolutionist, ushering in the modern age.

A check of worldcat.org, the combined catalog of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide (including Tazewell County Public Library), shows the number of books about Abraham Lincoln is about 21,200.  Of those, most are nonfiction, but there are 331 novels about him as well.  The nonfiction includes more than 4,000 biographies and 353 theses and dissertations.  Most of these books are in English, but 144 are written in Spanish, 163 in German, and 151 in Chinese!  The year Lincoln was assassinated, 1865, saw 1972 books published about him.  Since then, about 200 books have been written each year, although in 1909, the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, 579 appeared.  Last year, in anticipation of Lincoln’s bicentennial, 273 books were published.  As of 30 January, 76 books have been issued this year.  The importance of Lincoln as a beloved leader during a critical time in our nation’s history is clear.

The number of books about Charles Darwin, as shown in worldcat.org, is 4,241, of which 4,190 are nonfiction and 51 are fiction.  Writers have penned 701 biographies of Darwin and 233 theses and dissertations.  As with books about Lincoln, most about Darwin are in English, but 165 are written in French, 179 in Spanish, 145 in Chinese, and 323 in German.  In 1909, 100 books were published about Darwin, while more than half that have already been published in the first month of this bicentennial year.  Worldcat.org shows 38,070 books on the subject of evolution, of which Darwin is the father, reflecting his enduring legacy.

The current issue of Smithsonian magazine has articles about both men and another about the “intriguing coincidence” of their shared birthday.  Author Adam Gopnik writes that these men “did not make the modern world.  But, by becoming ‘icons’ of free human government and slow natural change, they helped to make our moral modernity.”  Further, Gopnik says, the two men also shared a mastery of language and that they “matter most because they wrote so well”, creating a body of work about their modern vision which we continue to share today.

Amazon.com has a page devoted to the two men which includes articles by various scholars, an interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin and, of course, links to dozens of books about, and by, Lincoln and Darwin.  The site also features a nice parallel lives timeline, and a counter revealing which is selling more.

Among the many appealing recent books are some real standouts. 
Candace Fleming has written The Lincolns: a scrapbook look at Abraham and Mary.  Although Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s backgrounds differed considerably, both were intellectuals who shared interests in literature and politics, as well as a great love for each other.  This is an engaging view of them for young readers.

Lincoln Shot! A president’s life remembered by Barry Denenberg is as big as a newspaper.  Designed as a one-year anniversary commemorative newspaper edition devoted to Lincoln’s assassination, this bold portrait mimics 19th century newsprint, combining pen and ink drawings with archival photography, and period typography with articles surveying Lincoln’s life.

Although you know how Manhunt: the twelve-day chase for Lincoln’s killer ultimately  turns out, author James L. Swanson keeps you on the edge of your seat wanting to know what happens next as the manhunt unfolds minute by minute.  This is a completely absorbing history-mystery.

The Kunhardt family of historians have a long record of expertise in Lincolniana.  Their newest publication is Looking for Lincoln: the making of an American icon, a beautifully produced volume of nearly 1000 photographs, drawings, and illustrations depicting the 60 years of commemoration following Lincoln’s death.  Interestingly, very little was known about the President until his death, when his law partner and others produced the first biographies .

About Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Adam Gopnik reflects that this “remains probably the only book that changed science that an amateur can still sit down now and read right through.”

David Quammen, in The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: an intimate portrait of Charles Darwin and the making of his theory of evolution, provides an affectionate and witty look at Darwin following his 5-year voyage on the Beagle, describing how he developed his theory of natural selection over 20 years, and how he finally, reluctantly, came to make it  public.

In The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner follows scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant who, for the past 20 years, have studied the continuing evolution of the beaks of finches in the Galapagos Islands.  They have found that beaks adapt to changing conditions of drought and flood, and that as little as one millimeter in the size of a finch’s beak will make the difference between life and death.  This Pulitzer Prize winner is easy and entertaining to read.

Find these and more books about these endlessly fascinating men at the Library.  Call 988.2541 or visit www.tcplweb.org.

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