The Book of Charlie: Wisdom from the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man
Author of Book: David Von Drehle
Date Read: February 4, 2024
Written by Gary Goulin
Why I chose to read this book:
I read this book on recommendation from a friend who said that it was an inspiring story of a man who survived and thrived in the face of adversity and revolutionary change.
This book chronicles the life of Charlie White, born August 16, 1905, as written as a series of interesting vignettes by his neighbor, the author of this book.
Charlie White was raised in Kansas City, Missouri and at the age of 8, lost his father to a freak elevator accident. Initially grief-stricken, he found an inner strength that taught him to ignore the things he could not control and reach for the things he could control: his own actions, emotions, outlook and grit.
The book is full of stories of Charlie’s grit and reaching for the things he could control. For example, Charlie wanted to attend Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, IL. He was rejected. Instead of just taking no for an answer, he traveled to Chicago and insisted on meeting with the Dean of the Medical School. Charlie explained why he would be a good candidate for acceptance to Medical School there and the Dean was convinced and admitted Charlie to the Medical School, where Charlie, of course, excelled.
The book chronicles other notable events in Charlie’s life. He became a general practitioner and was a very compassionate healer. He enlisted in the army where he was sent to learn the brand-new subspecialty of Anesthesiology. After the war, Charlie became Kansas City’s first and most sought-after anesthesiologist. He married, but his wife suffered from alcoholism and later committed suicide. He remarried and outlived his second wife; they had 2 children together. At the time of his death, he found love again in a new girlfriend.
Though Charlie “knew more than his share of sadness and hard work, Charlie didn’t resent life’s insults or protest its humiliations. Nor did he fail to enjoy its fleeting kindnesses and flashes of beauty.”
Lessons I learned:
Charlie, by living his life on his own terms, taught me many valuable lessons.
Resilience. “Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trust your instincts helps build resilience.” “You succeeded or failed by your own ability.” “Resilient people choose to avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. Instead, they view trauma as a painful chance to grow stronger.”
Negativity. “If you’re negative your whole body suffers. A negative person falls apart, because the food that is supplied with optimism is not present. An optimist does not deny darkness. Optimists…refuse to sink into it, to hide in it, to surrender to darkness.” “It’s natural to look at a goal and think…it might not be attainable. The trick is to ignore the ‘not’”.
Faith. “Laura White (Charlie’s mother) raised her son as if the world were a mostly safe and manageable place. She did this in spite of the freak violence that killed her husband. Through her, Charlie absorbed a faith that things would come out well.” Disappointment could be turned into a challenge, a chance to test one’s own strength.
Reality. “Throughout his life, Charlie never imagined things to be any worse—or any better—than they really were, for he had learned at an early age that life is never as sure as we might think, nor as hopeless as it might appear. Charlie had learned to treat the unknown as a friend—until life convinced him otherwise. Though he lived to an extraordinary age, life never did convince him otherwise.
How this book will contribute to my success upon release:
Unless one reads this book, it is difficult to comprehend what an amazing man Charlie White was. He lived his life by example, and his examples will help me tremendously in terms of contributing to my success upon release as well as during my incarceration.
Resilience will help me tremendously. I will certainly face obstacles while in prison, and upon my release and reintegration into society. Taking example from Charlie and realizing what I can control and what I cannot, will be tremendously helpful. By not seeing obstacles as insurmountable, but as an opportunity to grow stronger, I can successfully overcome these obstacles, while developing confidence in myself and succeeding in my ultimate goals.
I know negativity will be surrounding me while in prison. There will be chronic complainers, people unhappy with the prison bureaucracy, the food, the jobs, you name it. I’m sure there will be naysayers as I am released from custody. I need to avoid negativity because it’s counterproductive to a meaningful prison stay, and certainly counterproductive to a successful reintegration back to society. I need to partake in the food that is “supplied with optimism”. With this food, I can look at a goal and think it will be attainable.
Faith will be very important to me during my incarceration as well as upon my release. Even through horrible adversity early in his life, Charlie absorbed a faith that things would come out well. I intend to adopt the same philosophy. I will believe I will endure my incarceration with a sense of dignity and purpose, because I want to be a better person upon my release than upon my initial surrender. By having faith and believing that I will come out a better person and have a successful return to society, I intend to turn this into a self-fulling prophecy.
Maintaining a sense of reality of my situation will also help me. I made mistakes and am now paying for them. I have a long prison term. That’s the reality. What is also reality is that I will survive the prison term and will be released. I don’t have a terminal medical condition; I’m not dying. There are those who are far worse off than me. Transitioning back to society will likely have significant challenges. That’s the reality. But also very real is that I have an amazing group of friends and family who are eagerly waiting to help me whenever I need them. Like Charlie, I will treat the unknown as my friend until proven otherwise. Charlie lived to be 109 and it was never proven otherwise. Absolutely no reason to believe it would be proven otherwise for me either.