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Friday, March 16, 2018

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Oh my God I finished! I finished I finished I finished! Now with a preamble like that, you might think this book was torture which is why I'm so happy to be done with it, but it was the complete opposite. I really, thoroughly enjoyed it--it's just that it's really long, and it's already hard for me to squeeze in many non-work books, particularly loooooong ones that are also dense and therefore can't be read in massive chunks and take some serious time to digest.

Of course, if you're familiar with the musical, the biography is easier to read, as you have already gotten the Cliff's Notes version. As this book is the source material, I suppose ideally it ought to be read first, but I suspect that most people will be like me--first hear the musical. (I then read a book about the musical as well.) So like me, people will probably be looking for deviations, and also might get tripped out about which is the real story. It's much easier to believe the first thing you learn is real and deviations from that must be not right, but of course in this situation that's not the case--Miranda had to make adjustments to the facts to fit with a story arc and with songs and to abridge events and to move the action along and compress characters. But I'd say 80% of it is accurate.

What I did take some issue with is that certain events, such as the Reynolds Pamphlet, did not to me come across with the appropriate level of gravity for the situation. I felt like Chernow occasionally was too even-handed and too wedded to being an impartial fact-teller to give more profoundly impactful events in Hamilton's life, more weight in the book. That said, it is a biography, not a narrative, so I do understand his choice. I just worry that if I hadn't been prepped by the musical, I might have skimmed over some of the bigger events in his life without realizing how big they were. And it's not like Chernow never broke that role--he frequently comments on the humor of a situation, on the audacity of an action, or the astonishment he found upon trying to figure out simply HOW Hamilton wrote even half of what he did in the time allotted to him. (I really liked his conclusion that a lot was dictated and that Hamilton had the amazing ability to think and speak in complete sentences and paragraphs, even for hours at a time, extemporaneously.)

The book is very well-written, the historical era doesn't make anything at all hard to understand, and Chernow writes with aplomb and insight. It's not a wild page-turner or a great beach read, but if you're looking for a fascinating and incredibly well-written biography, you just can't go wrong here.

At first I borrowed this book from the library but after I used up all my renewals, I bought it at the new/used independent bookstore in my town.

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