John Beatty is the author of several books and articles about local history. He grew up in Michigan but has ancestral roots in Fort Wayne. He began working on genealogy at age 10 and has been a member of the Allen County Public Library's distinguished Genealogy Center staff since 1984.
Q. A person might assume a genealogist reads a lot of history and biography and maybe historical fiction in his spare time. Is that true for you?
A. I enjoy American and Irish history, as well as biography. I finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin late this spring. I don’t read very much historical fiction, but I am interested in reading classic works of fiction that I had missed in my literature classes. My son is a sophomore at Canterbury High School, and he finished Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” After he was done, I read it and loved it, so more Dickens will be on my reading list. I also read some theology and poetry.
Q. Do you have favorite authors, or do you perhaps lean toward favorite subjects?
A. I’m a big fan of John Meacham and David McCullough. Although they are popular, rather than academic, historians, I consider them muses of mine. They write so extremely well that I wish I could “channel” them in my own writing. In terms of history, I am most interested in the late 18th century, and I tend to be drawn to books about that time period.
Q. What books have you most enjoyed or have most strongly influenced you?
A. I’m an Episcopalian and a Christian liberal, and I often find myself drawn to tough theological issues in my reading, including works by the Jesus Seminar. I suppose the “Book of Common Prayer” is my favorite, most influential book (especially the service of Compline). I connect to God through the mysticism of that service. I’ve been greatly influenced by the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong after meeting him in Maine a few years ago. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions or viewpoints, but I appreciate his efforts to bring together science, rationality, history and theology. His latest book on the Gospel of Matthew has literally changed how I read the Bible.
Q. Were you an early, avid reader as a child? Have there been trends in your reading across your life?
A. I was not an avid reader as a child. While I read children’s books, I started reading more consistently during and after college. I spent a lot of time reading biographies in my early middle life (everything from presidents to musicians and cultural figures). I have a big personal collection of presidential biographies. Lately, as I said, I’ve been drawn to reading the classic works of fiction that I’ve missed, because I believe they are culturally important, just like seeing a painting or hearing a symphony. I’ve enjoyed Dickens so much that I will probably read a lot more.
Q. What roles have libraries played in your reading outside your professional life?
A. I have always had a library card from childhood, and I do check out some books that I don’t want to purchase. That is especially true of some biographies and theologies. However, I’m much more likely to purchase an inexpensive paperback of a classic fiction book, rather than check it out, just so I can read it at my own pace and put it down for a week if my schedule gets too busy.
Q. Do you listen to audio books or stick to the printed word?
A. Definitely the printed word. I’m a traditionalist in that respect.
Q. What are some of your favorites among the books and articles you have written? Were your decisions to write them triggered by any particular things you had read?
A. After the 2-volume Beatty family history that I wrote in 2010 (which I consider my magnum opus), I suppose the Fort Wayne histories are my favorite. My writing interests are often triggered by local history writing that I see being done for other parts of the country. When I see a topic well treated in an article in some journal, it leads me to apply those topics locally. For example, I remember reading an article about prostitution in the West, and it lead me to ask, what happened in Fort Wayne in the 19thcentury? When I viewed pioneer-era portrait paintings in the History Center and read Wilbur Peat’s book about Indiana portrait painters, it lead me to want to find out more about local artists and photographers in the 19th century. There is so much in Fort Wayne that hasn’t been fully explored, especially with regard to social history.
Q. Please comment on how being an author has affected your reading choices and your reactions to what you read.
A. I always want to be a better writer, and the only way to do that is to be an observant reader, looking carefully at the writing techniques of others. Writing history is an art, not a science, and the masters of the craft have beautiful, descriptive ways of telling stories that draw readers into their narratives. Remember, the Greeks had a history muse called Clio. When I read David McCullough, for example, I can hear his distinctive speaking voice telling the story. I try to aim for writing in a way that captures my own voice. With respect to local history, I am always looking for books that treat local history in new, innovative ways. The Genealogy Center has a history of Madison, Wisconsin, by David Mollenhoff titled Madison: A History of the Formative Years. He takes a social-geographical view of his city that should be a model for all local history writing. I draw inspiration from new approaches like this.
Evan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.