During my Catholic childhood in South Louisiana, young people were encouraged to read the lives of saints to learn how to be good people. I still have a weathered copy of “57 Stories of the Saints” on a bookshelf in my living room, which includes brief accounts of Christian luminaries such as St. Sebastian, St. Catherine of Siena, and of course the immeasurable St. Joan of Arc.
Alas, reading about saints hasn’t set me on the path to sainthood — at least not yet. But those stories about people gaining strength from difficult struggles made me realize early on that biography can be an inspiration and a guide. Maybe that’s why every year I give myself a new biography or two for Christmas, the story of someone who encountered an obstacle and learned to overcome it.
I’ve found that this part of my post-Christmas reading life is a great way to keep things open after the holidays have brightened and all those New Year’s resolutions have lost their luster.
Few of the biographical subjects I read each winter are the saints themselves. In fact, most of them have obvious flaws, just like the general running of human beings. Even so, their resilience to overcome obstacles seems worth remembering as the new year begins.
For example, in the first few months of 2021, I spent the first few months of the year in Mark Salter’s description of the late Republican presidential candidate John McCain months. Reading about McCain’s courage as a prisoner of war in Vietnam is a lesson in what responsibility demands. Last January, I got mixed up with Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography of David Mitchell, “Eleanor.” Roosevelt’s trembling voice and hesitant speech made her an unlikely public speaker, but she worked hard to master the platform and become a persuasive speaker. Her ability to reinvent herself, it seems, is very much part of the American creed.
McCain and Roosevelt, if they were contemporaries, probably wouldn’t agree much politically, but I find a lot to admire in their biographies. Here’s another great thing I’ve encountered great people living in the winter. My lists often include figures of all political stripes, providing a healthy reminder that wisdom is not the exclusive domain of any political party.
Last month, I ushered in Christmas with “future inventor” Alec Nevala-Lee’s new biography of Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, who died in 1983 at the age of 87, was known for promoting nature-inspired inventions such as geodesic domes that nod to honeycombs.
As I’ve learned from Nevala-Lee’s work, Fuller was a difficult and egotistical individual who often took the credit of others. What I like best about Fuller so far is his belief that ingenuity can solve vexing human problems.
That optimism may seem in short supply these days, but it’s good to remember what it looked like.