MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
President Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago this week, so we gave historian Eric Foner an assignment. We asked him to choose his favorite books on President Lincoln. It's for our series "Three Books," where writers pick three books on one theme.
BLOCK: Every generation of Americans reinvents Abraham Lincoln in their own image. Politicians from conservatives to communists, civil rights activists to segregationists, have claimed him as their own. Presidents - most recently, Barack Obama - try to model themselves on him.
BLOCK: Although there are innumerable biographies of Lincoln, the best remains David Herbert Donald's "Lincoln," published in 1995. If you want to know what Lincoln was doing and saying at any point in his career, this is the first place to turn. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the book's overriding theme is the essential passivity of Lincoln's personality. Unlike most biographies, which are overwhelmingly adulatory, Donald's is a bittersweet portrait. Lincoln emerges as a man buffeted by forces outside his control - rather like Bill Clinton, who, not coincidentally, was president when Donald wrote his book.
R: Here lies the essence of Lincoln's greatness - his capacity for growth, his willingness to abandon old ideas and opinions to meet an unprecedented crisis. As Lincoln wrote, as our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. This is a lesson President Obama might well learn from Abraham Lincoln. He might start by reading these three books.
BLOCK: Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University. He's the author of "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World." And his three book choices are "Lincoln," by David Herbert Donald; another also titled "Lincoln," by Richard Carwardine; and "The Radical and the Republican," by James Oakes. You can find other Three Books recommendations at npr.org.
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