Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Book Review: Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The impending American holiday brought to mind this review that never got posted. The timing (the eve of July 4th) is quite nice, though I have something else planned for the actual holiday!

I somehow stumbled across this book while browsing around the Kindle free book section and downloaded it last summer. I think I started reading it in the fall, and only just finished it in January. It's been slow going, though mostly because I used it as a "five minute read" while waiting in line or for a show to start. The book is full on interesting stories, covering Franklin's life up to 1757. So it does leave out his involvement in the American War for Independence.

But the rest of his life is very interesting indeed. We've all heard stories of how Franklin formed the first library in the colonies and the first volunteer fire company anywhere. Getting to read the details of how and why he did those from his own recollections is fascinating. As are his many other schemes, such as getting the streets of Philadelphia paved and employing street sweepers to keep them clean. The sheer amount of practical ideas he came up with and implemented is amazing. He is an example of entrepreneurship in an age when opportunities seem quite unlikely.

He started out quite simply, the 17th son of a candle maker in Boston. He was to be an apprentice of one of his brothers, a printer, but things did not go well. He fled Boston, first to New York City, then to Philadelphia. Through thrift and industry he built a good living for himself. More importantly, he built a good reputation so that he was sought out for advice by the local government and served several times in public offices.

He presents himself as always considering the public well-being. He instituted several philosophical societies, where men would discuss important issues in a civilized manner and share their books on various topics (leading into the first public library he established). He fostered good citizenship through these groups. When the men realized that they could lose all their possession in home fires, Franklin proposed a volunteer society that would be ready to form a bucket brigade to fight fires. Even more, he had a scheme to raise money to equip a vehicle with supplies for fighting fires, thus inventing the first fire engines.

Franklin is also quite candid about his religious views. He wound up as a non-sectarian Christian, embodying the best virtues he could imagine and practicing them deliberately. His unassuming style comes through in his writings--he's honest and straightforward about his successes and failures.

The book isn't very long (151 Kindle pages) and gives a good feeling of what his life was like. I highly recommend it.


In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen. [p.87]

I grew convinc'd that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life; and I form'd written resolutions, which still remain in my journal book, to practice them ever while I lived. [p. 51]

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