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44 Books on 44 Presidents: My struggle with Ulysses Grant

Editor's note: This is the eighteenth entry in the writer's year-long project to read one book about each of the U.S. Presidents by Election Day 2016. You can also follow Marcus' progress at the @44in52 Twitter account and with this 44 in 52 Spreadsheet.

The more you read about the Civil War, the more it becomes clear that the conflict raged for far longer than anyone expected. After plowing through Jean Edward Smith's biography Grant, I know the feeling. 

At 600 pages, this tale of Ulysses S. Grant isn't the longest book in my project thus far — the Washington, Adams and Lincoln biographies had more pages — but it sure felt like the longest. 

If you're a fan of long books, by the way, know that Ron Chernow is following up his lengthy Washington and Alexander Hamilton biographies with his own take on Grant. Expect the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical to follow.

Music was about the only thing that got me through the book:

As a man, Grant was a true American archetype — he kept rebounding. He had terrible luck in business; he was a drunk who dried out before helping to win the war for the Union. 

Yet his defining characteristic was being understated — in contrast to the bluster of Donald Trump or even the rumpled, gravelly grump of Bernie Sanders.

Still, Grant was not above Presidential shenanigans, particularly in how he maneuvered to protect his private secretary Orville Babcock. Along with a few other Grant appointees, Babcock was named in the Whiskey Ring scandal. This infamous case shapes our perception of him even now. 

I should point out that I enjoyed the book, even if it tried to put a polish on all the corruption in Grant's second term. Smith's recounting of the complex maneuvers of the Civil War gave me a far better appreciation for the general — certainly more than I got growing up in Alabama. 

So why did it take me damn near a month to read this thing, often managing a mere handful of pages before getting distracted? 

Part of it was personal. In the middle of my reading, already behind schedule, my wife and I took a trip to Portland. I managed to squeeze in some reading on the flights and in what little downtime we had, but that certainly set me back a bit (though, it should be noted, I managed to fly through the James Madison bio on my honeymoon). 

That trip wasn't without its advantages; I made two trips to the famous Powell's book store where I spotted books for future reading and stocked up for this project, too. 

But heck, I'd managed to fly through the Madison biography on my honeymoon, so what gives here? One word: fatigue. 

In the beginning I set myself about eight days per biography, which works out to about 8 days per book. For a 150-to-200-page biography, that's easy. But for 400-to-600-page biographies, back-to-back, it takes a Grant-like level of fortitude.

Even on days when it felt like I made significant progress, I found I had just barely slogged my way through 20 pages. That's the kind of depressing revelation that makes you want put the book down and sit slack-jawed in front of the television.

Of course, this just leads to guilt — especially when you're reading about this guy. After all, how would he judge me for being so lazy? 

If Grant was able to find his way back from the precipice of being a broke and beleaguered man struggling to support his family and lead the Union to victory in the Civil War, I can read a damn book. 

But, good lord, I struggled. Hell, even this write-up is late, two days past deadline and two weeks after I finished the book. 

I've dug myself a nice hole but, hopefully, it won't get any deeper and, with a little bit of climbing, I can prove I ain't licked yet.

Days to read Washington: 16
Days to read Adams: 11
Days to read Jefferson: 10
Days to read Madison: 13
Days to read Monroe: 6
Days to read J. Q. Adams: 10
Days to read Jackson: 11
Days to read Van Buren: 9
Days to read Harrison: 6
Days to read Tyler: 3
Days to read Polk: 8
Days to read Taylor: 8
Days to read Fillmore: 14
Days to read Pierce: 1
Days to read Buchanan: 1
Days to read Lincoln: 12
Days to read Johnson: 8
Days to read Grant: 27

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