Mark LeBlanc, professor of computer science, is reading the biographies of all the U.S. presidents—in order. LeBlanc is now in the process of choosing a biography of Richard M. Nixon, and he’s open to suggestions.
What got you started on this project?
I started around 2006, after I read a biography or two of John Adams—I just love that New England boy. I decided to go back and read a biography of Washington, then Jefferson. Once I did these first three, I was on a (slow) roll.
What do these life stories tell you about contemporary politics?
I continue to be struck by just how “political” the early presidents were—and how unkind they were to each other and those of other political parties. I’m not sure this makes me feel any better about the bitter rancor I hear today, but at least I’m more certain that it is not something new.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Between ball practice, outdoor play, and homework, I just had no time left for casual reading. Now, as I age (and my children age, and I am no longer the hero who romps around the living room floor), my free time leads me to good books. I usually have two or three going, and these days, one is always a presidential biography.
Which biographies would you recommend most highly?
Truman, by David McCullough. I loved his childhood—or at least McCullough’s summary of it. But mostly, I am amazed at the hand he was dealt as he took over the presidency [in 1945, during wartime]. I do not completely understand how men and women handle such stress.
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963, by Robert Dallek. I had just finished another biography of JFK, and Professor Jay Goodman (Political Science), said to me, “You read the wrong one. Read Dallek. He’s the first author to have access to the complete medical history of JFK.” Jay was right: this was just an outstanding biography.
Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973, by Robert Dallek.
Is there any relationship between computer science and literature?
Computer science is like duct tape: we stick to everything. My current research in text mining is yet another confirmation of that mantra. Digitization of texts is opening a whole new world of textual analysis. Everything is going to be digitized, so scholarship in the humanities is really changing, not unlike how biology has changed since the human genome was fully sequenced (digitized).