Thursday, April 02, 2015

Nonfiction Review: Personal History

One of my book groups recently chose Katharine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History. I don’t normally write a review of a book that I haven’t finished, but I spent almost three weeks reading through page 405 of this hefty tome, so I think I got a good perspective on both its positive characteristics and its flaws.

In case you aren’t familiar with her, Katharine Graham was the renowned owner of The Washington Post for many decades. Having inherited it from her father and her husband, Katharine took over the job of publisher of what became one of the nation’s top newspapers at a time when it was very rare for women to even be involved in business at all, let alone in such a powerful position. However, as an autobiography, Personal History covers her entire life, not just her time with The Washington Post.

In fact, the book begins well before her birth, with background and histories of both her mother’s and father’s sides of the family, going back many generations. Her father’s family was Jewish, with roots in France, while her mother’s family was Lutheran, originally from Germany. Their interfaith marriage was unusual for the time, but her parents were prosperous and popular public figures, first in New York state and later in Washington, DC, as her father became more involved with politics. Katharine had a privileged childhood, surrounded by wealth and opportunity, with her family splitting their time between multiple huge houses in the city and the country.

When Graham’s father first purchased The Washington Post, it was the smallest and least profitable of 5 major newspapers in the DC area, but he was determined to make it successful. Under first his leadership, then that of Katharine’s husband, Phil Graham, and finally, with Katharine herself at the helm, the family newspaper eventually became the top-notch, respected newspaper that it is today. Along the way, Katharine experienced a fair amount of tragedy in her life as well, including the death of her husband.

At 625 pages, Personal History is a very long book but also a very dense book, packed full of details, names, dates, and other minutiae. Despite its title, it is far more than just a personal history of Katharine’s life but also a chronicle of her family history, a detailed history of The Washington Post (and the family also owned Newsweek), and an intricate insider’s view of politics from the 1920’s through the 1980’s.

For my taste, there was just too much packed into one book. While I found much of it interesting, it was a very slow read, and I would have preferred more personal and less business. The best part of the book was when she wrote about her husband’s illness and eventual death because those sections were imbued with an emotion that was often lacking from the rest of the book. I’m not a fan of celebrity memoirs/autobiographies to begin with – I’d rather read about “regular” people – and the constant name-dropping in this book was tiresome to me. Finally, the book could have used a good editor to help cull and shorten it a bit to highlight the best of it. I had to wonder whether her editor was afraid to suggest too many changes to such a high-ranking, renowned journalist/publisher!

Not everyone agrees with me. For instance, the Pulitzer committee must have thought highly of Personal History because it won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography in 1998. Although I wasn’t able to attend our book group discussion, I heard that ratings on our 10-point scale ranged from 3 to 9.5! Most readers in our group agreed the writing wasn’t great but some felt the fascinating content outweighed that.

This book is fascinating, in many respects. Besides Katharine’s personal life story, you can see the entire history of modern politics in this book. The Grahams were very close to several U.S. Presidents, and that inside view is interesting – being in the hotel room when Jack Kennedy decided on his running mate at the Democratic National Convention, being whisked off to Lyndon Johnson’s Texas ranch for an impromptu weekend, etc. And, of course, The Washington Post was instrumental in breaking the news of Watergate. Katharine’s story also presents an interesting view of the changing role of women from the 1950’s to the present day.

All in all, I learned a lot reading (65% of) this book and found some of it very interesting; however, it was dense and overcrowded with details and not an easy read. I enjoyed it enough to spend a few weeks on it for my book group…but not enough to spend another couple of weeks finishing it! If you have a particular interest in U.S. politics, journalism, or the role of women in the workplace, then you will probably like this book more than if you are just looking for an interesting read.

625 pages, Alfred A. Knopf


  1. I tried to like this book too. To be honest I never finished it - I couldn't bring myself to keep reading. I think I read a little over half.

  2. 625 pages isn't a joke!! Good job even reading through 65% :) I think I like what it sounds, but perhaps like you said it was a bit shorter or more precise, it would be a bit more readable for everyone.

  3. I agree with your assessment of the book, and I haven't gotten as far as you have. Might press on a little further... Thanks for the post.

  4. I've always been interested in writing, publishing and history, but I agree that 625 pages is too long. Maybe they should have broken it into different books. Thanks for sharing on Small Victories Sunday link up.