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When I was young, and my father got the blues, he would often try to buck himself up by telling me what a good president he would have been. To this bricklayer who was the son of Swedish immigrants, the job of leading the Free World looked like a snap when compared to battling the caprices of nature or contending with the vagaries of the human heart. Whenever a cold wave had driven my father and his crew off the job for a week, or Lefty, his lead bricklayer, had gone on one of his periodic drinking binges, I could expect to hear, "I'd do a better job than that rich guy Kennedy. He doesn't know what pressure is," or "What does Johnson know about life? A man with common sense needs to be president." Having assured himself that only a poor career choice had kept him, and all of America, from fulfillment, my father was then free to resume his labors with good cheer.
In choosing teaching over bricklaying, I left my father's trade behind but carried his trait with me. As my father did, so do I occasionally try to shake myself out of discouragement by imagining what I might have done.
To be sure, in true academic fashion, I have changed the range of reference for my comparisons. Rather than declaring what a great president I could have been, I make myself proud by thinking that I would have done a better job of writing a particular book or dispatching a complex subject in a 20-page essay.
This temptation--a fantasy of sorts--has been especially strong for me in the case of biographies. Throughout my adult life, I have read for pleasure the lives of noted authors and public figures. And, admittedly, I have come away from more than one biography convinced that its subject would have fared better in my hands. "Had I told the story of Robert Lowell's life, I would have traced more clearly the pattern beneath the cruel behavior," I've told myself, or, "Walter Jackson Bate is a great writer, but if I had done Samuel Johnson's life, I would have gotten it right about his Christian ...