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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: Lincoln by David Herbert Donald

lincoln - Copy

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald
Unabridged, 30 hr. 27 min.
Simon & Schuster Audio
Dick Estell (Narrator)
November 7, 2012

Genre: Non-Fiction, Presidential Biography

Source: Received from publisher for review

“David Herbert Donald's Lincoln is a stunningly original portrait of Lincoln's life and presidency. Donald brilliantly depicts Lincoln's gradual ascent from humble beginnings in rural Kentucky to the ever- expanding political circles in Illinois, and finally to the presidency of a country divided by civil war. Donald goes beyond biography, illuminating the gradual development of Lincoln's character, chronicling his tremendous capacity for evolution and growth, thus illustrating what made it possible for a man so inexperienced and so unprepared for the presidency to become a great moral leader. In the most troubled of times, here was a man who led the country out of slavery and preserved a shattered Union -- in short, one of the greatest presidents this country has ever seen.”

I have to admit that I wasn’t planning to read about Lincoln until much later in my challenge mostly because there are SO many books about him available. You have books that cover his entire life as well as those that are focused on a smaller segment of his life. I know some things about him (as most people do) – so where to start? As luck would have it, Simon and Schuster contacted me with the offer to review Lincoln by David Herbert Donald on audiobook, so I jumped at the chance and the decision was made.

I really appreciate the approach that Donald took when writing this book. In the introduction he lays out the following: “In tracing the life of Abraham Lincoln, I have asked at every stage of his career what he knew when he had to take critical actions, how he evaluated the evidence before him, and why he reached his decisions. It is, then, a biography written from Lincoln’s point of view, using the information and ideas that were available to him. It seeks to explain rather than judge” (preface). He really seeks to keep the focus on Lincoln himself and not get tied up in all of the turmoil that was going on around him – which is something that other books tend to do. You won’t really find tangents on the specific battle of the Civil War here, unless it was something important to what Lincoln did or where he went.

The bulk of the book (and it certainly is a chunkster, with a page count of 720 pages and over 30 hours of audio) focuses on the time prior to the presidency – particularly his time as a lawyer in Illinois. While I appreciated understanding where Lincoln came from and how he grew in popularity to even become president sometimes I thought this section was a little too in-depth. The author went on to talk about the specifics of almost every case that Lincoln tried. I didn’t need these details. I think it would have been more effective to choose a few of the cases that were most important to some aspect on Lincoln’s development and focus on those. It got to a point where it was an endless list.

I appreciated learning about the relationship between Abraham and Mary – it made her a real person. Typically we see Mary following Lincoln’s death as a grieving widow, but Donald makes her a complex creature. It was also eye-opening to learn that most of the other politicians of the time period thought that Lincoln was doing a terrible job as president and that he almost wasn’t re-nominated for a second term. He is typically viewed as the greatest of our presidents by the modern American public. It makes me wonder how more recent presidents will be viewed once we are further removed from their term of office. If this book does one thing, it really gets you into Lincoln’s head which is a great feat since he kept his own mind most of the time.

I would recommend this book for someone looking for a complete life of Lincoln. However, be aware that the book ends almost immediately following the assassination, so do not expect an analysis of that issue.



The audio narration was overall very well done. I thought that the narrator kept my attention throughout the book. My only complaint would be with regard to the production. There would be times where I was listening and the voice would seemingly change. I think, if this was done intentionally, it was to denote the reading of a footnote so as to help the listener differentiate from the text. Whatever the case, I found it to be a little jarring. I would have preferred if they were reading a footnote to say something like “footnote: blah, blah, blah”.

David Herbert Donald also has written several books about Lincoln and his times, including: We Are Lincoln’s Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends and Lincoln At Home: Two Glimpses of Abraham Lincoln’s Family Life. You can listen to an excerpt of the audiobook here.

Below is a segment from Book TV with David Herbert Donald discussing his book, Lincoln. This interview was a few months before his death in 2009.

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:

Here are some choices for purchasing the book: Amazon, B&N, RJ Julia (my fav indie bookstore).


Copyright © 2013 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Lincoln has become quite popular in literature and film lately! I think I might need a shorter version myself, as I am only mildly interested in more in-depth knowledge of Lincoln.

    1. He has become the new go-to topic this year! It certainly is a long read - that was why I did it on audio. I don't have that strong of a commitment to long books in general but the audio helped with that. I am not the biggest Lincoln fan but I have decided that I'm going to try to learn more about him to try and understand more than what is taught in High School.


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