The Presidential Biography Challenge

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Matt Grant

Staff Writer

Matt Grant is a Brooklyn-based writer, reader, and pop culture enthusiast. In addition to BookRiot, he is a staff writer at LitHub, where he writes about book news. Matt's work has appeared in Longreads, The Brooklyn Rail,, Huffpost, and more. You can follow him online at or on Twitter: @mattgrantwriter

This is a guest post from Matt Grant. Matt is a reader based in Brooklyn. He also writes occasionally, because it’s a borough-wide requirement. In addition to books, he loves to talk about movies, television and video games. You can follow him on his website, or on Twitter, @mattgrantwriter.

Whatever your political persuasion, it’s safe to say that the recent Presidential election was not the easiest to live through. There was divisive rhetoric from both sides. Everyone seemed to be shifting blame for our national problems. And there was a growing distrust of the media and its ability to report the “facts.”

If you’re anything like me, it made you want to take a long, hard look in the mirror as an American. How did we get to this point? What unique combination of history and circumstance led us to where we are now?

In my quest for answers, I’ve decided to turn to my favorite source of information: books. Starting this year, I plan to read one biography for each of the 45 American presidents. This challenge began germinating in my mind in January of last year, as the 2016 election ramped up in earnest.

First, I began listening to the excellent Presidential podcast from The Washington Post. Each week for 44 weeks, the podcast explored the character and legacy of each president. A fun mixture of interviews, musings, and personal recollections, the podcast does a great job putting history in context. Best of all, at the end of every episode, the host mentions biographies for further reading. I started to wonder how long it would take to read through biographies on each president.

Then, one month later, I found this excellent article, also from The Washington Post, and realized that there are quite a few people who do just that. Some do it chronologically, some non-linearly, and all seem to take several years to complete. Something about a long, drawn-out challenge like this appealed to me. I made up my mind to give it a try. 

Before this challenge started, I had read only two presidential biographies: John Adams and Team of Rivals. In John Adams, I discovered a newfound respect for the tenacity and moral character of our second president. In Team of Rivals, I saw the shrewd politics and affable nature of my favorite president. Both books taught me not only about the men themselves, but a great deal about American history as well.

It may seem daunting to take on a reading task that I know will take me several years to accomplish, but I have the time. I don’t plan to power through these biographies, but digest them slowly and thoughtfully. I may read one after the other, or I may take some time off and read other things between. Like the best reading journeys, I want to be open to where it will take me. I have a loose deadline of 2020, by the next Presidential election. 

Why take on such a monumental, protracted challenge? What am I hoping to gain?

The Presidential podcast opened my eyes to the realization that presidential history is American history. And American history is presidential history. Some colorful characters have occupied this unique American office throughout the years (William Henry Harrison, anyone?), and every one has shaped our history, for better or worse. By the end of this challenge, I hope to have a clearer view of who those people were, and the legacy they left behind. That way, I hope to see not just where we’ve been as a nation, but also where we’re going.

Has anyone tried this challenge? Any suggestions for which biographies to try?