Travel, Reading, and Herbert Hoover

President Hoover smoking and reading on the deck of the U.S.S. Arizona on his trip to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on March 27, 1931. (31-1931-12)

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Miss Jennie Gray is immortalized by Herbert Hoover as introducing him to the wonders of reading.  As he recalled: “She took me to the small library in town [Salem, Oregon] and borrowed for me a copy of Ivanhoe. That opening of the door to a great imaginative world led me promptly through much of Scott and Dickins, often at the cost of sleep.  Years later, this reading added to the joys of exploring the towns and countryside in England and Scotland.” 

Books became the portal for Hoover and millions of other youngsters to transcend their local setting to different times and places in the world of imagination.  As Hoover traveled the world as a mining engineer, he spent hours, often days in transit.  This gave him plenty of time to read.  While in China, Hoover used his down time reading Chinese history, Confucius, Mencius, economics, sociology, fiction, Plato, Shakespeare, Schiller and Goethe.  He also claimed while traveling: “I had armed myself with a supply of cheap paper translations of Balzac, Dumas, Zola, Victor Hugo, Rousseau, and Montaigne” later adding “Voltaire, Mirabeau, the Encyclopedists, and the other Revolutionaries.”  Previous blogs have explored Hoover’s interest in murder mysteries and his favorite authors of that genre.

In particular, Hoover was taken by an idea arising from his reading of the autobiography of Andrew D. White who was an historian, diplomat and first president of Cornell University.  His reading of White occurred while in transit across the English Channel as head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium.  White described how he became interested in the French Revolution and began collecting anything related to it.  Hoover understood that he was witnessing a similar pivotal moment in history with the world war and his food relief efforts.  It was this realization that eventually led to the creation of the Hoover War Library, later the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace.

Hoover conferred with History Professor E.D. Adams at Stanford in undertaking the acquisition of materials for the new library.  Adams and a team of other scholars obtained materials beginning in 1919 and continuing until they felt they had acquired sufficient materials to document the war.  With an acquisition budget of $50,000, Adams had more than sufficient funds to complete his task.  But collecting is an ongoing enterprise and the Hoover Library continued to increase its collections and collecting scope with no set date for termination.  On June 20, 1941, the iconic Hoover Tower was completed as a new home for the library.

And the collecting continues.

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