When he was a little boy, Harry Truman’s father gave him an incredible gift. In one sense, it was a physical and financial thing. The Truman family saved their dimes in the 1890s and sent away for a copy of Plutarch’s Lives. It had a bright red cover, and his father would read it aloud to his son, who was fascinated by the stories of the great men and women of history.
“I’ll always be grateful to my father for introducing me to Plutarch,” Truman said.“The things you happen on at an early age like that stay with you for the rest of your life.” So the simple version of the gift was that. We wrote over at Daily Stoic a few years ago about a personalized and inscribed edition of Plutarch that one former U.S. president gave to his son. It’s a gift all parents should give to their kids, as the stories that Plutarch tells–of Caesar and Cato, the Spartan (and the Spartan women), Demosthenes and Alexander–have been influential to generations of leaders and thinkers for a reason (there is a great little collection of Plutarch’s titled How To Be A Leader). They force the reader to wrestle with big questions and like Shakespeare’s characters, to examine the virtues and vices of the movers and shakers of the world.
But the real gift of course, was that this was where Truman’s love of reading came from. He may have been one of the only U.S. presidents not to go to college but he was unquestionably one of the country’s most well-read leaders. He loved history, he knew it and its figures intimately. His mother and his father get the credit for that. They sought out books he would like, they sacrificed for him to be able to afford them, they took the time to read to him, they modeled reading in their own habits. They raised a reader, as we’ve said.
And that turned out to be a gift not just to their son but to the whole world. If you want to have a multi-generational impact, if you want to set your kids up to be successful in life, give them Plutarch. Give them a love of history and books.