Saturday, May 16, 2009

Call of Nature leads to Jefferson biographer

I just finished reading R.B. Bernstein’s short (198 pages), excellent biography of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford:2003).

I wouldn’t have discovered Bernstein’s book if my wife hadn’t needed a toilet in Brooklyn on a sunny Friday late last month.

Perhaps I should explain.

We were wandering around Brooklyn on Spring Street when nature called. The nearest door open to the public was a bookstore, Heights Books, Inc.

“May I use your toilet?” my wife asked the friendly clerk, who looked like he might own the place, but, as it turned out, didn't.

“We only let employees use it,” he said followed — by a dramatic pause. “But in your case, go ahead.”

I nosed around the small but carefully stocked store and immediately spied James Walvin’s “The Quakers: Money & Morals.”

Looked interesting.

My choice drew praise from the clerk. “Walvin is an excellent historian,” he pronounced.

His certainty prompted a discussion about Quaker history. The clerk shared that he was an historian. He pointed to a wall poster advertising a biography of Jefferson. “I wrote that one,” he said. He didn't tell me that it had been nominated for a Pulitzer.

Our conversation immediately shifted from Quaker history to Jefferson — the “Jefferson Bible,” the founding of the University of Virginia, Sally Hemings, Jefferson's inscription for his grave marker (which purposely neglects to mention his presidency).

The clerk, Richard B. Bernstein, said that unfortunately he had no copies of his book in stock, but once back in Portland I miraculously found a copy at our Hillsdale Branch Library.

I Googled Bernstein and discovered that he is much more than a biographer and bookstore sales clerk.

See for yourself.

As I say, I recommend the book.

My wife says that the toilet could use some work.

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