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The Book of Charlie
Wisdom from the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man
Table of Contents
About The Book
When a veteran Washington journalist moved to Kansas, he met a new neighbor who was more than a century old. Little did he know that he was beginning a long friendship—and a profound lesson in the meaning of life. Charlie White was no ordinary neighbor. Born before radio, Charlie lived long enough to use a smartphone. When a shocking tragedy interrupted his idyllic boyhood, Charlie mastered survival strategies that reflect thousands of years of human wisdom. Thus armored, Charlie’s sense of adventure carried him on an epic journey across the continent, and later found him swinging across bandstands of the Jazz Age, racing aboard ambulances through Depression-era gangster wars, improvising techniques for early open-heart surgery, and cruising the Amazon as a guest of Peru’s president.
David Von Drehle came to understand that Charlie’s resilience and willingness to grow made this remarkable neighbor a master in the art of thriving through times of dramatic change. As a gift to his children, he set out to tell Charlie’s secrets. The Book of Charlie is a gospel of grit—the inspiring story of one man’s journey through a century of upheaval. The history that unfolds through Charlie’s story reminds you that the United States has always been a divided nation, a questing nation, an inventive nation—a nation of Charlies in the rollercoaster pursuit of a good and meaningful life.
Nightly when my four children were young, I sat with a flashlight outside their bedrooms on the floor of the darkened hallway and read to them from chapter books. We read thousands of pages of Harry Potter and made hundreds of doughnuts with Homer Price. We spent time with Ramona and Beezus on Klickitat Street and sojourned in Narnia with the Pevensie children. We devoured diaries of a wimpy kid and reeled through volumes of unfortunate events. We thrilled to The Red Badge of Courage and wept over Where the Red Fern Grows. And of course, we returned more than once to the Arable farm, where miracles were woven into Charlotte’s Web.
For many years, I enjoyed an audience of devoted listeners, but as the kids grew into their own concerns, I knew our shared time was coming to an end. They would soon have finals to study for, and crushes to FaceTime, and Netflix to stream deep into the night. The moment I was dreading arrived after we turned the last page of another adventure with Peter and the Starcatchers. My middle daughter suggested that we suspend our nightly reading indefinitely, and the others (more quickly than I would have hoped) chimed in to agree.
Sometime before we reached the end of our reading, the kids learned that Daddy was a writer of some kind, and they began asking me to write a book for them—the sort of book I could read aloud in the dark with my flashlight. I wanted very much to deliver for them, to pull a bit of magic from my hat and spin it into a tale both bracing and amusing, a story of brave and resourceful young people making their way in a marvelous and dangerous world. But every stab I took at writing a children’s novel failed in one way or another. Gradually, I realized that my reading days would run out with their wish still unfulfilled, and that my failure to deliver a suitable story would be one more in a catalogue of ways in which I would disappoint them. A father hopes to be as extraordinary as his youngsters, in their innocence, imagine him to be, so that they need never become disillusioned with him. Perhaps some fathers accomplish that. As for me, my children matured, took notice of their father’s shortcomings, and gave up asking for a book written just for them.
But now, here it is.
Admittedly, this is not the book they wanted. While there are plenty of exploits and perils and tragedies and amusements in the pages to come, none of them involve castles or pirate ships or even much tender romance. The main character has undeniable charms, but he’s no hero, certainly no superhero. This book is bereft of wizards, crime-solving orphans, time travel, or empathetic talking spiders. It’s not the book they asked for, but I believe it is a book they will need.
For this is a book about surviving, even thriving, through adversity and revolutionary change. Today’s children—yours as well as mine—will live out their lives in a maelstrom of change. Some of it can be forecast. Other challenges will arrive as abruptly as a worldwide pandemic. I expect that self-driving cars and conversational robots are only the beginning, puffs of wind on the mild side of the storm. For cars and robots are gadgets, and gadgets evolve without necessarily changing the world. My own generation, after all, came of age with transistor radios and nineteen-inch Trinitrons. Now we have Spotify and eighty-five-inch UHD TVs. Yet we’re still listening to music from handheld devices and watching two-dimensional pictures in motion behind a glass screen.
Revolutionary change is another matter. Revolutions have the power to remake societies and cultures and economies and political systems. Think of Gutenberg’s printing press. Before print came along, there was no reason for most people to be literate. Information traveled slowly and unreliably by word of mouth or hand-copied manuscripts. Knowledge accrued very slowly because people knew only what they could learn from their elders in a family or village. The printing press made it possible for the first time to connect people cheaply and efficiently across broad distances and even across time. The follow-on effects were extraordinary: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the scientific and industrial revolutions, the rise of democracy and free markets, the end of legal slavery, the age of exploration, including the exploration of space. All of these were made possible by print. If movable type—mere blocks of wood and slugs of lead—could do all that, what changes might be wrought through a revolution that places the world’s libraries and languages in the palm of each hand and gives to every human being the power of mass communication?
The nature of work is changing, too, as more and more of the world’s productivity derives from the interaction of humans and computers. History teaches that vast upheavals follow in the wake of workplace revolutions. When foraging gave way to farming, the world of tribes and nomads became a world of cities, states, nations, and empires. Cultures have been remade again wherever industrialization and market economies have replaced subsistence farming. The feudal world of kings and tsars became a mechanized world of finance and bureaucracy. For some, the new world was one of alienation and strife; for others, it was a world of freedom and aspirations. Women were liberated to have fewer children, for example. Having fewer children meant longer lives and time to think. The children they did have were better fed and endured less drudgery. Longer lives came to mean time for an education, and education taught people to dream. Today, we might suppose that parents have always hoped that their children would sail into brighter futures, but for most of human history, parents expected that their children would endure lives just as brutish and short as their own. Palace or hovel, one’s birthplace was one’s destiny.
I believe the digital revolution has already begun to spin off effects every bit as dramatic and vast as these past revolutions produced. Politics is being transformed by the disruptive power of social networks. Our news and information sources—the wellsprings of civic conversation—are unraveling under the power of infinite choice. Mating rituals are being recast by algorithmic yentas and virtual singles bars. Institutions are being undermined, while formerly localized threats, from terrorism to novel viruses, have gone global.
Parents want to give children the tools they need to succeed in life. But our kids are launching into a world so strange and unpredictable that a parent can’t help but worry whether today’s toolkit might become tomorrow’s burden. God forbid our advice takes them in the wrong directions.
As I’ve watched the growing magnitude of the digital revolution, I’ve come to fear that I don’t know enough about change to be of much help to my kids. I know about change at the gadget level, but have seen comparatively little of it at the levels of entire cultures and societies. Though I’ve marveled at many technological wonders through the years, my life has not been all that different from the lives of my parents. My mother and father grew up when radio was new, and I’ve lived to see radio splinter into broadcast, satellite, and wireless streaming. But my parents and I all lived in the time of radio. The same could be said of airplanes, newspapers, internal combustion engines, network television, Republicans-versus-Democrats, “modern medicine,” and a thousand more categories that have lent a stability to our lives even as the new gadgetry amazed us. During my children’s lives, however, the categories themselves may be erased, and new categories created.
It dawned on me that I must go back another generation or two to find a role model and scout for them—a true surfer on a sea of change. I had to get back to the last years of the agrarian past, that moment when middle-class people lived without electricity or running water, when humans didn’t fly and antibiotics didn’t exist. I needed to find someone whose early life would have been recognizable to farmers from the age of Napoleon, or of Leonardo da Vinci. Someone from the world where horse-drawn carriages far outnumbered automobiles, where pictures didn’t move, and where kings ruled empires. An American born in the early 1900s who managed to live into the 2000s would have one foot planted in the age of draft animals and diphtheria—a time when only 6 percent of Americans graduated from high school—and the other planted in the age of space stations and robotic surgery. Such a person would have traveled from The Birth of a Nation to Barack Obama. From women forbidden to vote to women running nations and corporations. From Sunday potlucks in neighborhood churches to Sunday frenzies at football games where every big play is instantly rerun on screens five stories high. No human foot had ever touched the North or South Pole or the summit of Mount Everest when they were born, yet they lived to see footprints on the moon.
Children of the early 1900s who lived to a great age saw their lives and their communities, their places of work and of worship, their families and mores shaken, inverted, blown up, and remade. They entered the world at just the moment that (in the words of Henry Adams) history’s “neck [was] broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new,” and they lived through the ever-changing consequences. What did it take to thrive and find happiness while experiencing so much disruption? Whatever it was, those were the tools I want to pass on to my children: the tools for resilience and equanimity through massive dislocation and uncertainty.
I decided to write a book for my children that would unlock the secrets of life inside the storm. And once I understood this was my task as their father, I would have gone to the ends of the Earth to find such a tale. But that proved unnecessary, because one blazing August morning I looked up from my driveway and saw my story standing there, just across the street.
Reading Group Guide
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Each year more people live to be 100 years old. In 2021, there were nearly 90,000 centenarians living in the United States. But 109? And a healthy, robust 109 to boot? To live a century plus and be of sound mind and body is indeed a rarity, but the subject of The Book of Charlie accomplished just that. Veteran Washington journalist David Von Drehle chronicles the remarkable life of Midwest physician Charlie White, who was born in the early 20th century and lived a decade into the 21st. After moving to Kansas City, Missouri, Von Drehle and White established a relationship, first as neighbors, and ultimately as friends. The result is the story of a human being who not only lived a long life, but lived that life to its fullest. Von Drehle describes how Charlie White navigated through decades with an unflinching combination of stoicism, optimism, and good old-fashioned grit. At its face, The Book of Charlie tells the story of a remarkable man who lived a long and fascinating life, but in the end it is “a book about surviving, even thriving through adversity and revolutionary change.”
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. David Von Drehle (DVD) sought to write a book for his children. On page 2 he writes, “It’s not the book they asked for, but I believe it’s the book that they need.” Discuss the main lessons that you took from the book. What scenes from Charlie White’s (CW) long life resonated most strongly with you? If you were to write a book for a child, family member, or friend, what experiences from your own life would serve to illustrate a lesson worth sharing and/or learning?
2. As DVD brainstormed ideas for what would become The Book of Charlie, he realized “I must go back another generation or two to find a role model and scout for them―a true surfer on a sea of change (p. 5).” How did Charlie “surf” through the many changes he witnessed over the course of his life? What role models exist in your own life who have surfed the waves of time? Describe these role models in your life.
3. In Chapter 2, the author describes an early impression of CW: Life seemed to rest more lightly on him than on other men. Though…he knew more than his share of sadness and hard work, Charlie didn’t resent life’s insults or protest its humiliations. How can resentments undercut a life well-lived? Discuss how you cope with resentments, and how CW’s ability to let life “rest lightly on him” can be applied to your own daily life.
4. Discuss the concept of joie de vivre, translated from the French to joy of living. How does CW demonstrate this exuberance for living? How can a “grateful attention to the beauty of life (p. 10) increase one’s joy? What does the “choice to see its [life’s] beauty is available to us at every moment (p. 10)” mean to you? How can you choose to see the beauty in life, even when times are challenging?
5. In Chapter 5, DVD describes the odyssey to California that CW took with two of his high school friends. On page 57, he writes, “Resourcefulness is a close cousin of resilience.” Discuss how resourcefulness relates to resilience. Share examples of how you draw upon your personal resources to get through life’s challenges. What does the author mean by the “learning attitude of youth?” How can you tap into this attitude in your adult life?
6. The author shares that the year he met Charlie White was “also the year Apple introduced the first iPhone (p. 77).” He goes on to write, “He [CW] understood that thriving through change begins with an eagerness for The New.” How eager are you to embrace change and the seemingly endless advances in contemporary society? Discuss examples of instances in which you embraced change. How did you go about it? In contrast, discuss examples of how you’ve struggled with societal shifts, such as social media, technology, and shifts in cultural norms.
7. CW’s mother was a powerful influence in how he lived his life. DVD writes in Chapter 6 that, “By today’s standards, though, she would seem almost neglectful. In Charlie’s memory, her parenting boiled down to a single all-purpose piece of advice: ‘Just do the right thing.’ This simplicity is so removed from my own generation of helicopter parents. My parenting mistakes…stem from overinvolvement rather than benign neglect (p. 95).” Discuss benign neglect versus helicopter parenting styles. What are the pros and cons of both? Given how the world has changed since CW’s youth, do you think there is a happy medium? What are your views on “overinvolvement” in a child’s life?
8. On page 106, the author quotes the poet E.E. Cummings: Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit. How are self-belief and taking risks related? Discuss examples from the book that illustrate how CW’s self-belief allowed him to take risks that resulted in personal growth. Share examples from your own life in which your belief in yourself (abilities, faith, strengths) allowed you to take a risk that resulted in a positive outcome.
9. The author discusses how CW’s realization of his limited medical training taught him humility (p. 110). What is humility? How do you demonstrate humility in your own life? Do you think humility is a natural occurring emotion, or one born out of experience? How are humility and gratitude related?
10. On page 134, DVD discusses personal identity and the concept of “true self.” Discuss the following questions the author poses on this page: If all the trappings were stripped away, leaving only my true self, who would I be? Am I living fully as that self in every moment? And when it ends, will my story have meaning?
11. In Chapter 9, DVD describes how CW “doubled down on this naturally affirmative nature, his inclination to say yes: yes to adventure, yes to experiment, new ideas. How does “saying yes,” living in the affirmative, open the door to a life lived “in full (p. 154?)”
12. In his 109 years on the planet, Charlie White touched the lives of countless people. The author shares a series of “flashbulb memories” of CW’s life. “These are moments and images that stand out as if floodlit in the dim twilight of our busy, jumbled memories (p. 173).” Reflect back to your own life. Share scenes, moments, and experiences that stand out to you as personal “flashbulb memories?”
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
Words of Wisdom.
The author cites many texts, some ancient, some more contemporary, throughout The Book of Charlie: Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Victor Hugo, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and E.E. Cummings. Choose a selection of texts by one or more of these authors. At your next meeting, discuss how your selection relates to The Book of Charlie.
A Celebration of Humanity: The Chautauqua Movement. On page 21, readers learn that CW’s father “preferred to swim in a different intellectual stream, [and] accepted a prominent role in the local Chautauqua movement, the annual grassroots celebration of art and ideas that spread across the heartland at the turn of the century.” Explore the Chautauqua Institution website: https://www.chq.org/. Choose and participate in an online discussion or event hosted by this historic organization.
A Philosophy of Life. Late in his life, an interviewer asked CW to describe his philosophy of life. “I just plowed along, he finally said.” Ultimately, CW penned a list of “definitive commands,” and “distilled his philosophy of life (p. 189).” Review the “commands” found on pages 189-191. Which ones most resonate with you? Spend a few minutes crafting your own personal list of definitive commands that describe your own life philosophy.
Guide created by Colleen Carroll, literacy educator, content creator, and author of the How Artists See series (Abbeville Kids). Learn more about Colleen at www.colleencarroll.us.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 23, 2023)
- Length: 208 pages
- ISBN13: 9781476773926
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Raves and Reviews
"I gotta recommend this book, filled with history, wisdom, common sense, and laughs galore. I wish I had lived across the street from Charlie AND that I make it to 109!" — Tom Hanks, on Instagram
"An original and highly readable account of a splendid American life."
— The Wall Street Journal
"As is true of Charlie himself, this book is not just about goodness but grit, not just kindness but courage. It is also a shining example of the magic that can happen when a master storyteller with a deeply inquiring mind finds a subject that has hidden within it a million tantalizing opportunities to learn, to question, and to grow. To say that The Book of Charlie is inspiring is a vast understatement. I am a better person for having read it." — Candice Millard, author of River of the Gods
"No one writes as well about as many things as David Von Drehle, and his excellence is fully displayed in this slender examination of a well-lived life. In an era that elicits, by rewarding, incessant disparagement, he shows the beauty of elegant praise. You will never forget Charlie White, who was 102 when he came to Von Drehle’s attention." — George F. Will, syndicated columnist
"In every era, an author writes a genuinely original, formula-shattering book. David Von Drehle has done this in The Book of Charlie, a serious history of the last 100 years. Charlie is told through the personal story of one man, an accidental neighbor in Kansas, finding joy and what matters. I don't think it spoils the ending to divulge some of Charlie's lessons learned: 'Practice patience. Smile often. Savor special moments. Be soft sometimes.'" — Bob Woodward
"There is something rather magical that David Von Drehle—one of our nation’s most gifted chroniclers of history— met up with Charlie White, who lived longer than anyone you’ll ever know. This Kansas City-set story is about goodness and the American spirit. It is also about time, and the graciousness in which a life can be lived on this green earth." — Wil Haygood, Colorization: 100 Years of Black Films in a White World
"David Von Drehle's book is a monumental achievement cloaked in the experience of one ordinary American man of his time. In this stunningly true story, 100 years worth of American eras become breathakingly intimate experiences, history becomes personal, and a neighbor becomes a figure of deep nobility. You will never look at the folks next door the same way again." — Sally Jenkins, author of The Real All-Americans
"A marvelous parable of resilience and durability, full of surprises and grace notes. David Von Drehle is among our most astute observers of the human condition, and in Dr. Charlie White—physician, centenarian, bon vivant— he has found a large character worthy of his talent." — Rick Atkinson, author of The British Are Coming
"The Book of Charlie isn't just a loving look at an astonishing 110-year life, it's a look at ourselves." — Rick Reilly, author of Commander In Cheat
"Relevant, funny, and fresh....Barry masterfully weaves multiple overlapping plotlines into his text....Barry’s longevity as a writer seems to have only honed his skill. For decades now, Barry has been entertaining us, and his latest offering is hilarious." — Washington Free Beacon
"A splendidly woven, inspirational memoir that explores the meaning of life and the resilience of the human spirit… This deeply engaging personal portrait of a remarkable centenarian also offers an absorbing account of the inventiveness of U.S. citizens— and the U.S., as it continually strives to evolve and improve.” — Shelf Awareness
"Von Drehle’s detailed rendering of White’s life—especially his front-seat view of (and sometimes participation in) groundbreaking medical developments—is fascinating, and the men’s friendship affecting. This has a lot to offer." — Publishers Weekly
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