Hundreds of thousands of Americans are currently purchasing and avidly reading two monumental biographies in book form about two monumental figures in world and American history.
In position number one on every bestseller list is Walter Isaacson’s 900-page volume on the life and achievements of Leonardo da Vinci (Simon & Schuster). The other, ranked closely behind and almost as large, is Ron Chernow’s review of the battles and U.S. presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (Penguin Press).
Many such purchasers will soon discover that they have accidentally bought guidebooks to their next travel itinerary. Rarely have two such tomes performed that function better. And though both books are, perhaps, overly heavy additions to your luggage, both are superb introductions to the city-by-city and place-by-place attractions of travel.
Isaacson’s biography is of the art and inventions of a universal Renaissance genius, a remarkable talent whose paintings, among other feats, are described without exaggeration as the best ever created by a single human being. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (seen today in Paris’ Louvre Museum), The Last Supper (viewed in Milan), Notebooks (of which a few are seen in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum), and Virgin of the Rocks (National Gallery, London) are indispensable attractions and stops on any trip to Europe (among which are a dozen other magnificent works viewed elsewhere on the continent).
What is especially unique among Isaacson’s history of each such work are 20-page descriptions of the artistic choices made by this genius to achieve the greatness of each painting. Though scores—and indeed hundreds—of other connoisseurs have written similar analyses, Isaacson’s are perhaps the most easily understood and comfortably presented of any recent work. By carrying the book with you as you travel through Europe, and carefully consulting each analysis as you stop to view each painting, you greatly expand your understanding and immensely add to your pleasure.
As for Chernow’s Grant (pictured above in a photograph by Matthew Brady from about 1863), the Civil War hero is perhaps of lesser interest to some, but followers of his fascinating history will want to visit the sites of his greatest victories: Vicksburg, Petersburg, Shiloh, Appomattox, and more, where the biographer provides massive details of topography and tactics. Again, the book can add immeasurably to your understanding of each historic battleground.
So don’t leave those books on the shelf at home. Each is a remarkable travel guide.