Book Review: Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik

Author: Adam Gopnik
Title: Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
Publication Info: Knopf (2009), Edition
ISBN: 0307270785


My annual Lincoln/Darwin Day reading is a short book published for the bicentennial of their birth. This book is an extended rumination on the lives of two men born on the same day who helped create the modern world.  Gopnik sees both Lincoln and Darwin as men of words, Lincoln with speech and rhetoric and Darwin with his novelistic prose.  The title and a major issue upon which Gopnik builds his narrative is the debate of Edward Stanton’s eulogy for Lincoln, whether he said “Now he belongs to the angels” or “Now he belongs to the ages.”  This book is an interesting but not essential addition to the literature about these two fascinating men.

Favorite Passages:

“The thesis is that literary eloquence is essential to liberal civilization; our heroes should be men and women possessed by the urgency of utterance, obsessed by the need to see for themselves and to speak for us all.  Authoritarian societies can rely on an educated elite; mere mass society, on shared dumb show.  Liberal cities can’t.  A commitment to persuasion is in itself a central liberal principle.  New ways of thinking demand new kinds of eloquence.  Our world rests on science and democracy, on seeing and saying; it rests on thinking new thoughts and getting them heard by a lot of people.” p. 22

“The attempt to make Lincoln into just one more racist is part of the now common attempt to introduce a noxious equilibrium between  minds and parties: liberals who struggle with their own prejudices are somehow equal in prejudice to those who never took the trouble to make the struggle.  Imperfect effort at being just is no different from perfect indifference to it.” -p. 49

“… for the first time, and despite much conventional religious piety — there’s a nascent sence throughout the liberal world that the deaths of young men in war will never be justified in the eyes of a good God, and never compensated for by a meeting in another world.  Their deaths can be made meaningful only through a vague idea of Providence and through the persistence of a living ideal.” – p. 120

Recommended books: Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression by Jacques Derrida, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen, and Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills.
Rating: ***


Lincoln — Darwin — 200!

I’ve been looking forward to this day for some time as it is the 200th anniversary of the birth of two of the most influential people of the 19th Century.  Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on February 12, 1809.  In addition to a shared birth date, influence, and lots of controversy, Lincoln & Darwin share a sense of humility according to Robert McHenry of the Britannica blog

“Darwin, we might say, believed in the power of the human intellect; and at the same time he acknowledged its weaknesses. Lincoln was only too aware of the human capacity for sin; and at the same time he sought to prevail over it through forgiveness. Is it too trite, in this so sophisticated age of doubt and irony, to note simply that each man did the work he found himself called to, and did it with unequalled grace? Can we set aside the suspicion that we, most of us, are not up to their example and instead rejoice that they were of our species?”

They also both rocked the chin hair:

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub lists some more coincidences between the two men.  Adam Gopnik wrote a book about both men called Angels and Ages which I’ll have to read for next year’s Lincoln-Darwin Day book.

Speaking of books, today I began reading Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills and I ‘m already learning much about Lincoln’s most famous speech at the consecration of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.  Meanwhile, school children across the nation simultaneously recited The Gettysburg Address this morning.

Previous Lincoln-related books I’ve read include:

Looking for more to read about Lincoln check out Six More Books about Lincoln from The Christian Science Monitor and reading recommendations for all ages from School Library Journal.

While I don’t make a special effort to read books about Darwin each year, here’s my Darwinian readings:

One can also read the Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online.

Don’t feel like reading?  Listen to some great podcasts:

For more on Abraham Lincoln:

For more on Charles Darwin:

The Lincoln Cent was introduced to commemorate the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, so today is also the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Cent.  Let’s hope they don’t stop making cents.

Finally, here’s a cool YouTube video that claims to show Every Known Photo of Abraham Lincoln: