Title: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Date Completed: 8/1/2011

Author(s): Benjamin Franklin

Copyright: 2005, University of Pennsylvania Press

# pages: 178

Genre: Autobiography

ISBN: 0-8122-1929-5

Just about every leader in the self-improvement genre advises that you should read Ben Franklin’s autobiography.  So, it has been on my list for a long time.  I’ve tried to check it out many times, but it was never on the shelves at my local library.  So, I finally put a hold on it, and here we are.

The book takes the form of a letter to his son, so one of the most notable things about it is that it is not really a book, in the sense that it has no chapters.  It is a very long letter spelling out what, you assume, Franklin felt it was important to tell us about his public life.  I, for one, found it to be very enlightening.  First of all, I learned a lot about Franklin.  I’m sure I learned some of this stuff in elementary school, but I’ve since forgotten it.  He is responsible for much more history than just the kite flying and the socializing in France.  As a matter of fact, it is hard to believe that one person could contribute so much, in so many different aspects of life, to society.  I walked away with the sense that Franklin never slept and never had a sick day in his life.  He couldn’t have in order to do everything he did.

I also learned a lot about society in the 1700s from this book.  Because Franklin is writing about things that happened to him, you can easily get a sense of the way business, politics, and life was conducted during his time.  This was a period in our culture where arguments were made through the use of a pamphlet.  If you wanted to make a point about something, you wrote and distributed a pamphlet.  Others would read and either agree or disagree with you.  Many times, if they disagreed, they would do so through their own pamphlet.  I believe that this pamphlet culture was imperative to the building of our culture, because the author of a pamphlet would think through their position, layout their arguments, providing supporting evidence or testimonials, and ensure that they had made their case before publishing.  They put their reputation on the line when they published a pamphlet, knowing that if they published something that later turned out to be untrue, they would lose face.  In our current environment of sound-bites and tweets, I must say that I’m a little nostalgic for a pamphlet culture.

Finally, maybe because I spend my free time on issues of literacy and education, I learned from this book that Franklin was a self-taught, life-long learner.  Part of the reason that he accomplished as much as he accomplished is because of his shear curiosity.  He wasn’t a scientist, but that didn’t stop him from conducting science experiments and publishing his findings.  He didn’t do this for any other reason that he was curious to know why things work the way they do.  He didn’t say to himself, ‘I wonder how come it is faster to sail from America to Europe than it is to sail from Europe to America, but I’m not a scientist, so I guess I’ll never know.’  He did some experiments and found the Gulf Stream.  He didn’t leave it to someone else, he didn’t ask for permission, and he didn’t let the fact that he was a printer, not a scientist keep him from doing it.  He had an insatiable need to learn and discover new things.  That may be the best lesson we can take from Franklin’s life.