Have you ever wanted a textbook to be more personal? Have you ever wanted to feel like you truly had an active hand in your learning? And are you a fan of Choose Your Own Adventure stories? Also, for extra credit, have you ever wanted to get trashed with notable historic figures?
If the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” then James Gabler’s An Evening with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson: Dinner, Wine, and Conversation might just be for you. This text seeks to actively involve the reader in the learning process. Instead of a dry, anonymous author listing facts, Gabler gives his text a personality: all of the information is delivered to the reader through conversations between an imagined history professor and Founding Fathers Franklin and Jefferson, over – you guessed it – dinner and wine. And while this sounds very interesting and intriguing, there is a large problem. You have to have both an interest in the Revolutionary War, as well as wine, to truly enjoy the text. And when I say an interest in wine, I don’t mean grab a couple bottles and get drunk while watching prime-time television kind of interest; the interest needed is that of the wealthy connoisseur. Yet, in a way these conversations succeed simply because Gabler has portrayed a true, if rarely discussed, facet of life: no matter how many fascinating things a person has done, they might not always say the most fascinating things.
Of course, such an unorthodox book may seem like too much of a novelty for those wishing to gain serious insight into the lives of Jefferson and Franklin. While Gabler does a stunning job at researching and supplying a sumptuous bibliography, I honestly cannot see too many historians turning towards this talking text. Yet when I mentioned the idea of a conversational text to my younger siblings, who often complain about the inadequacies of textbooks, they took a good deal of interest in it. Many older people seem distrustful of the idea of learning in conversation form, but middle schoolers and lower level high schoolers are always in need of ways to make learning more interesting. This book would have been a joy for me when I was a ninth grader facing my first ever historical research paper–but being older and spending a life immersed in studies and dense texts, this book becomes less of a joy and more of a curiousity.
Honestly, this is the most curious thing I have read in a long time. Never before have I ever had to say that a book has too much personality, but there it is. Yes, I enjoy the fact that the text seeks to engage the reader, but at the same time, it is too guided by the author’s own personal interests. In fact, oftentimes while reading this, everything seemed to be meant only for the audience of one: James Gabler. And while every text could be stated to originally be meant only for the author’s satisfaction, not many strive to be so inviting and yet so standoffish at the same time. An Evening with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson does indeed have an interesting premise, and those curious about eccentric writing should indeed attempt a read; but unfortunately, most will find that this book sinks itself under the weight of its own quirkiness.
Reviewed by Megan Giddings
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.