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The Man Who Signed His Name 'A. Lincoln'

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast hosted by NPR's Lynn Neary. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Ronald C. White Jr. loves the language of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's words, says White, are "strangely contemporary" and still often quoted. President Barack Obama is among the many who have drawn inspiration from Lincoln's speeches and writing. Obama's fascination with Lincoln is one reason the 16th president has been getting so much attention lately.

This month also marks the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and the market has been flooded with books about him. White's A. Lincoln has managed to emerge from the crowd to provide new insight into one of our nation's most admired presidents.

In his two previous books on Lincoln, White focused on his rhetoric. But A. Lincoln is the story of his life. The title, White told one interviewer, invokes "the unpretentiousness of Lincoln." "A. Lincoln" was the way that Lincoln signed his name, and it was the only sign he had on the front of his house in Springfield, Ill.

"I want to portray him in all his humanity," White said. "He's not some marble god sitting in a memorial." The story of Lincoln's unlikely rise to power is almost mythical, and people around the world still find it compelling, White says.

White explores Lincoln's troubled marriage to Mary, the deaths of two of their sons, and his bouts with depression. But he also writes of Lincoln's well-known love for books and how they changed and shaped his life in so many ways. The author reveals that Lincoln kept a kind of diary, little more than scraps of paper he used to jot down notes which he would sometimes use in his speeches. This love of the written word is what made Lincoln such a powerful orator. His talent for speaking became widely known during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and critics especially praise White's depiction of those events. The Miami Herald calls this section of the book "fast paced, almost thrilling and eerily resonant."

This reading of A. Lincoln took place on Feb. 6, 2009 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.